Among the legions of predictable, starched-shirt regulators that populate Washington, outgoing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin has been a conundrum.
Martin, who announced this week he will step down from the commission on inauguration day, is a self-described free-market Republican. Yet he has nevertheless used his considerable power to push consumer-friendly policies that angered cable television companies, like "a la carte" pricing that would allow customers to select and pay only for the channels they really want. In addition, he pried open wireless networks, protected Internet users from unequal treatment by service providers, and paved the way for a new generation of wireless Internet devices.
But Martin has also toed the deregulatory GOP line by backing major corporate mergers, removing regulations on giant telecommunications companies, and enforcing strict limits on racy content on television.
While those positions may seem contradictory, telecommunications veterans say there is a common thread — he has fought consistently to open markets to new competitors. That may be the most important legacy of Martin's almost four years as chairman. Whether anyone remembers it, though, is another question.
What will be remembered is Martin's controversial bedside manner. A congressional report depicts Martin as running the FCC in a Machiavellian fashion, fostering a climate of "deception and distrust." The report blasted the chairman for creating a "climate of fear" at the agency and withholding information from other commissioners and staff to further his agenda. In his almost four years at the helm, in fact, the chairman managed to aggravate a remarkable cross-section of politicians, consumer advocates, industry lobbyists, and agency employees.
"People," said Martin, "have a tendency to remember all the things they are mad at you about."