WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican nominee for a seat on the Federal Communications Commission, Michael O'Rielly, said on Wednesday that he favors an "extremely light" hand on regulation, drawing sharp remarks from some Democratic senators.
O'Rielly, who spent two decades as a congressional staffer and worked for Senator John Cornyn of Texas and former Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire, said that his work for the FCC would be dedicated to enforcing existing laws, bringing certainty to the market and reducing unnecessary regulation.
"The regulatory hand must be extremely light," O'Rielly said in testimony to a confirmation hearing by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
O'Rielly would join the FCC, which enforces telecommunications law, as it readies for a major reshuffling of the ownership of radio airwaves and tries to catch up to rapidly changing technology, including the transition of the telephone industry away from traditional analog networks to digital ones.
O'Rielly said he would commit to maintaining a program that gives discounts to schools and libraries for Internet access. He also committed to enforcing rules on decency in broadcast television and said he was open to exploring changing some rules governing media ownership.
Senator Mark Pryor, a Democrat of Arkansas, pointedly asked O'Rielly if his legislative experience included work with Democrats. "The last thing we need on this commission is partisan divide," said Pryor.
"I think I have a history of working with people on both sides of the aisle on communications policy," O'Rielly responded.
Senator John Rockefeller, chairman of the committee and a West Virginia Democrat, told Pryor, "Your question was really good.
"I also have seen people who have given testimony that is fairly specific. And then they get ... approved and they become different people," Rockefeller said.
When O'Rielly reiterated that he advocated a "flexible" and a "light hand" on regulation, Rockefeller interrupted, "To me those are code words."
Rockefeller pressed O'Rielly to ensure that rural areas of the United States were not left out of the digital revolution.
"They'll do it. ... They will do that," O'Rielly said, referring to telecommunications companies who must by law offer service to the thinly populated, less profitable countryside.
If confirmed, O'Rielly, who some industry insiders have described as "prickly," would join Ajit Pai as the second member of the Republican minority on the five-member panel.
The committee also heard on Wednesday from Terrell McSweeny, now at the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, who has been nominated to the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC works with the Justice Department to enforce antitrust law and enforces rules against deceptive advertising, among other things.
The toughest question to McSweeny came from Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, who asked about the commission's work in fighting manipulation of fuel prices. Cantwell asked McSweeny how big an issue it was for her.
"I understand how very real that pressure can be on consumers when they have tight budgets," McSweeny said.
If confirmed as expected, McSweeny would be the third Democrat on the five-member trade commission.
(Reporting by Diane Bartz; editing by Ros Krasny and Leslie Adler)