Pressures on Federal Regulatory Commissions

April 2, 1958

Report Outline
Investigation of Federal Commissions
Evolution of Regulation by Commission
Responsibility for Faults and Failures
Proposals for New Agency Safeguards

Investigation of Federal Commissions

The inquiry into operations of federal regulatory commissions and the conduct of their members, opened on Jan. 27 by the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, has evoked general interest in a sector of government which ordinarily escapes close public attention. The investigation, which is likely to extend beyond the present session of Congress, has been concerned so far chiefly with the affairs of the Federal Communications Commission. Five similar agencies—the Civil Aeronautics Board, Federal Power Commission, Federal Trade Commission, Interstate Commerce Commission, and Securities and Exchange Commission—are expected to come under the subcommittee's scrutiny in due course. The “Big Six” regulatory commissions form collectively what has been called “a headless ‘fourth branch’ of the government, a haphazard deposit of irresponsible agencies and uncoordinated powers.”

Preparations for the present probe got under way many months before the hearings began at the end of January. A House resolution of Feb. 5, 1957, authorized the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce to carry on broad inquiries in the field of the regulatory commissions. Before the resolution was adopted, Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) took the floor and urged the committee to set up a subcommittee “to go into the administration of each and every one” of the laws governing the regulatory commissions “to see whether or not the law as we intended it is being carried out or whether a great many of these laws are being repealed or revamped by those who administer them.” The Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, subsequently named by Chairman Oren Harris of the Commerce Committee, adopted Rayburn's language almost without change as a statement of the purpose of its inquiry.

Disagreement between Bernard Schwartz, New York University law professor who was appointed chief counsel for the inquiry on Aug. 1, and some subcommittee members over the approach to take in the investigation neared a climax at a closed session of the group on Jan. 8. Schwartz had prepared a 28-page memorandum to serve as guide to an exhaustive probe of the Federal Communications Commission. The bulk of the memorandum was devoted to inconsistencies in the application of standards employed by F.C.C. in granting television licenses. Three pages dealt with specific charges that unnamed F.C.C. commissioners had accepted favors from the television industry. Over Schwartz' strong objections, the subcommittee voted to put off this line of inquiry and start the hearings with a “general survey” of the Big Six.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Regulation and Deregulation