The new senior vice president of government affairs for Comcast Corp. in Washington, Meredith Attwell Baker, faces a host of lobbying limits because of her position on the Federal Communications Commission when the agency approved the cable company's $30 billion merger with NBC Universal Inc. in January.
She cannot lobby the FCC or any executive agency until the end of the Obama administration - which, if President Obama wins a second term, will be six years - and she is permanently barred from lobbying the FCC on issues related to the NBCUniversal transaction, which she voted to approve in the 4-1 vote.
Baker said Friday that she was surprised that Comcast still wanted to hire her after learning of these restrictions because she would be "completely useless" dealing with the FCC.
"I want people to understand that I haven't done anything wrong," Baker said. "I have done everything to comply with the rules."
Making a joke about the attention she was getting, Baker said, "At least everybody at NBCU knows who I am."
Baker said she viewed herself as a telecommunications policy expert and not someone being hired expressly for her political connections. She says she expects to play a key policy role inside Comcast as it deals with tensions between the company's new content division, NBCU, and its legacy distribution division, Comcast cable.
But critics pointed to Baker's seamless transition form her $155,500-a-year job as an FCC commissioner to Comcast as evidence of the "revolving door" culture at the agency that regulates pay-TV companies, broadcast networks, and phone companies. Baker's new job at Comcast was announced Wednesday. Baker is expected to leave the FCC in early June. "I plan to depart the commission as soon as I am able to ensure an orderly wind-down of my office," she said in a statement Friday.
"There is no shame in Washington," said John Dunbar, director of the Media and Broadband Project at the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Taking the Comcast job so quickly confirms "the worst suspicions that the regulators are there for the companies and not for the public," he said. Dunbar described the time between Baker's Comcast/NBCU vote and her FCC departure "an insanely short period."
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, a communications advocacy organization, said: "The revolving door at the FCC is a major problem, but Commissioner Baker is following the rules, and her actions are no different than many of her predecessors." He said he believed Baker was a "thoughtful FCC commissioner and conscientious public servant."
Baker said she believed government officials should be able to move to the private sector and that government rules "prohibit inappropriate relationships or behavior."
A lawyer with deep Republican ties in Texas and Washington, the 42-year-old Baker is the daughter-in-law of James A. Baker 3d, a former chief of staff for both President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. She joined the regulatory agency after former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin resigned when Obama took office in 2009.
Though her term was about to expire, Baker was not facing immediate loss of a government job. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) had sent her nomination to the White House for a full five-year FCC term, according to the trade publication Communications Daily. In addition, Baker could have stayed at the FCC under her current appointment until late 2012, according to agency rules.
Baker said it was time to move on.
Seeking to answer questions swirling around Baker's unexpected departure, the FCC general counsel, Austin Schlick, said Thursday after an FCC meeting in Washington that Baker informed the agency in April that Comcast had approached her for a job. Baker began recusing herself from matters involving Comcast or NBCU on April 18.
In a statement, Comcast said it hired Baker because of her "unparalleled qualifications for the job - she has almost two decades of legal and policy experience." In recent months, Comcast has been restructuring its Washington government-affairs office. The Philadelphia company hired Kyle McSlarrow, the former head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, to direct the office.
Bob Okun, the longtime head of NBC Universal Inc.'s government-affairs office in Washington, announced in mid-April he would leave NBCU to start his own firm. Baker was hired to replace him. Comcast has not said how much it is paying Baker.
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat and Comcast critic, said she had concerns about Baker's departure coming only months after the NBCU vote.
"I feel strongly that the process was compromised," Waters said of the agency's review of the Comcast/NBCU deal. "I do not believe that there were no discussions of her going to work for Comcast before the deal was approved. I think she knew when she took that vote that she would be going to work for Comcast."
Added Waters, "She may deny there were discussions, but I don't believe her."
Baker said there were "absolutely no conversations."