Jim Mooney: The Man Who Got Congress to Deregulate a Monopoly

Over the holidays, I received the very sad news that a former boss of mine, James P. Mooney, had died too soon.  Although he was long gone from the Washington scene, Jim was considered one of the most powerful lobbyists, if not the most powerful lobbyist, in Washington during the 1980s , when he was the CEO of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA).

And he earned this status for a very good reason.  He performed an act of what then seemed to be impossible magic and what now is no longer even remotely possible in the divided, partisan, grid-locked legislative arm of the government:  He persuaded the Congress of the United States to pass a piece of legislation. 

Not just any ordinary piece of legislation either.  A statute that deregulated what in effect many, if not most, people considered to be a natural monopoly, your local cable television operator.

A case study of how Jim accomplished this miracle should be mandatory reading for all students of government and is far too detailed for a blog post.  But suffice it to say (a Mooney-esque expression I think) that Jim was extremely smart and a master strategist, having learned which buttons to push and which levers to pull during his time as Chief of Staff to House Majority Whip John Brademas (D-IN).

He once told me that getting anything accomplished in Washington is like trying to dig a big hole with a teaspoon – it takes that much relentless and repeated effort and so few people are willing to do it.   In Hedrick Smith’s marvelous book about Washington, The Power Game, Jim summarized the labor that went into making any kind of headway with the Congress.  “What’s changed is there are so many more groups now and simultaneously a diminution of power in the power centers of Congress.  You’ve got to persuade members one by one.”

He was also always one step ahead, out-thinking and outsmarting potential foes and always willing to negotiate in a way that left everyone satisfied but somehow resulted in a comparative advantage for the cable industry.  And what an advantage the industry gained. 

After the passage of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, and particularly after cable rates were deregulated in 1986, a new industry was born, one flush with billions in new cash that went into building massive broadband infrastructure across the country and into creating hundreds of new television channels.  It is also true that some of those billions created a new class of media mogul, cable chieftains who became richer and more powerful than anyone had dreamed possible.   Jim Mooney certainly helped with that.

No one is perfect though.  Jim was also an irascible and demanding man, who did not suffer fools gladly and I think he viewed more than a few people as fools.  He gruffly demanded greatness from those who worked for him and he usually got it.  The staff he created at NCTA was like no other in Washington – talented, smart, eager, hard-working and superb. 

I was very, very young when I started working at NCTA but he quickly placed demands on me that, in retrospect, would have been difficult for even an old accomplished hand to fulfill.  I did not want to disappoint him because Jim, a military and history buff, told me I was “the real navy,” meaning that he thought I could do what he asked.  And I did.  We all did.

In almost Shakespearean terms, Jim learned, the industry learned, that what Congress giveth, Congress can taketh away.  The billions in new wealth created by the 1984 Cable Act ultimately spawned resentment and backlash, paving the way for a 1992 Act that re-regulated the industry and ended an era of unbridled…something.  Pendulums swing, nature abhors a vacuum and Jim gave up the power game.

In recent years, Jim talked to me mostly about his son Jimmy (also named James).  How he loved doing nothing more than hanging with Jimmy, whom he considered to be his best friend.  Louise, his wife, a whirling dervish of a woman who was a loyal cheerleader to them both, rounded out a good life.

So cheers to the man who achieved the impossible.


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