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It can be hard to grasp the politics of the FCC — its body of regulation can seem like minutiae to those outside of D.C. But a recent decision that could end a stalemate over the pending merger of AT&T with Bell South could have ramifications beyond combining the two companies. Last summer, commissioner Robert McDowell recused himself from voting on the AT&T-Bell South pact because he once worked for a telecom corporation involved in lobbying on the merger. That left the FCC split, with two Republicans in favor and two Democrats against. But on Friday, the FCC’s general counsel said that McDowell, a Republican appointee, was free to vote on the merger, citing past precedents.

Why is this important? Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have refused to support the merger because they want so-called “net neutrality” provisions attached to the deal, writes John Nichols of The Nation. Such provisions would prevent telecom companies from setting up a “two-tier system” where it is much easier for users to “visit Internet sites that pay for special treatment.” As Nichols writes, that would give a well-paved information superhighway for sites that pay up but a dirt road for those who do not. Nichols says that FCC chairman Kevin Martin is anxious to get the merger through in part because he’s entertaining the idea of running for governor of North Carolina, with a heavy dose of telecom contributions.

Of course, Congress could still pass such “net neutrality” provisions, but where that is remains to be seen with the Democrats about to be seated in the majority.