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Comcast’s mega-merger cries out for congressional hearings

It’s hard not to be awed and wowed by those table-side chefs in high-end Japanese steakhouses.  Knives and spatulas flying through the air and clattering off the grill in an environment seemingly in total chaos.  But when the whirlwind of frenzied activity is over, you end up with everything exactly as you wanted it.

A similar demonstration seems to take place every time Comcast cable wants something from the government and sends David Cohen, its executive chef/chief lobbyist, to Capitol Hill to ooh and ahh the nation’s decision-makers.

Well, sit back and relax…because the next Cohen performance is about to begin.  And, boy, is this one ever gonna be a doozy!

Comcast—the largest cable company in the U.S. and the “Borg” of digital media (“You will be assimilated”)—now has Time Warner Cable, the nation’s #2 cable company, in its sights and “monopoly” is the name of the D.C. game.

Indeed, if the proposed merger of the two cable giants is approved by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a third of the nation’s cable subscribers and 40 percent of the country’s high-speed Internet customers will come under the control of this new mega-cable conglomerate.

So the stakes are exceedingly high.  For Comcast.  For the cable television industry. For high-speed Internet.  And lastly, but certainly anything but least, consumers who could get stuck with higher bills and fewer choices.

The lobbying campaign to pull this one off will require Cohen’s skills of near-legendary proportions as critics, understandably so, are already coming out of the woodwork to oppose the marriage.

Irwin Stelzer of the Hudson Institute wrote on St. Patrick’s Day that “there is much to suggest that this merger is about as anti-competitive, and therefore anti-consumer, as one can get,” while Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) warns that Comcast’s “top priority is Comcast’s bottom line, not whether this deal will be good for consumers.”

“There’s a strong case to be made why this merger shouldn’t be approved,” adds former FCC commissioner Michael Copps.  “It’s just so much power for one company to amass, and it’s not just cable.  They’re a broadband company, they’re a broadcast company, they’re new media, they’re old media, they’re telecom, they’re everything.”

Paging Dr. Cohen.  Dr. David Cohen.  Please report to Capitol Hill, stat!

Back in 2012, when Comcast was gobbling up NBC Universal, Cecelia Kang of the Washington Post referred to Cohen, a longtime Democrat party operative who once served as former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell’s chief-of-staff, as the company’s “secret weapon.”

Those who know Cohen, according to Kang’s article, say he is completely at ease navigating the government bureaucracy and “benefits from Comcast’s willingness to spend lavishly to get federal officials to see things the firm’s way.”

How lavishly?

Holly Yeager of the Washington Post reports that in the decade since Comcast swallowed up AT&T Broadband in 2002, the company’s annual Washington, D.C. lobbying budget “has skyrocketed” from $2.3 million to $18.8 million, including sizable grants to left-leaning activist organizations such as $385,000 to the National Council of La Raza and $250,000 to the National Urban League.

The only individual company to spend more on lobbying last year was defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which seems oddly appropriate since Comcast has put together a veritable army of some 100 high-priced and high-powered lobbyists, including “four former members of Congress and a lawyer who worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

And that doesn’t even count the lobbying muscle Time Warner Cable brings to the table, which itself totaled more than $8 million last year.  Nor does that include the campaign lucre the two companies have “showered” upon President Obama and congressional Democrats.

“Employees and the associated PACs of both media giants donated heavily to the president and his party ahead of the 2012 elections,” reports Justin Sink of The Hill, “and appear to be on pace to do so again in 2012.”  And as Tony Romm of Politico reported, “even before announcing its plans for Time Warner Cable, Comcast had donated to almost every member of Congress who has a hand in regulating it.”

Oh, and that doesn’t include the $2.2 million that Cohen reportedly “bundled” for the president’s election campaign in 2008 and re-election campaign in 2012; the same president whose Justice Department is now considering approval of this monster mega-merger of media mammoths.

If ever there was a merger that cried out for congressional inquiry over serious anti-trust concerns, this is it.  The Obama administration should not be the best government that Comcast and David Cohen can buy.

Muth is president of Citizen Outreach, an advocacy organization committed to promoting limited, constitutional government and free-market public policies.  This column was originally published in The Hill.

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