The change of power in the White House will have a far-reaching impact across Washington, including at the Federal Communications Commission. The agency’s majority will become Republican and President-elect Donald Trump will install a new chairman in the coming months. New policies are also expected to quickly take shape.
Current chair Tom Wheeler’s term doesn’t officially end until Nov. 3, 2018 but it’s doubtful he’ll remain at the FCC past the coming inauguration on Jan. 20. “I will abide by the wishes of the transition of the new President,” Wheeler told reporters when asked about his plans two weeks ago.
With no previous government experience, Trump doesn’t have a ready-made list of allies to tap for key positions. Economist Jeffrey Eisenach, who has been leading Trump’s telecom team, expects him to pick a new FCC chairman with a light touch. “You would expect him to appoint to the FCC someone who would be inclined to take a less regulatory position,” Eisenach told C-Span last weekend.
Washington insiders are pointing to current commissioner Ajit Pai as having an inside track to succeed Wheeler. “I would think Ajit Pai would be at the top of the list,” says one D.C. insider who pegged his odds at 75%, noting Pai’s South Asian heritage could appeal to a new administration looking to address diversity concerns raised during the campaign. If Pai is Trump’s pick he would also be able to quickly take over the reins, at least on an acting basis, without Senate confirmation. Similar fast tracking would be available to Trump if he selected Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly.
“I have no idea who he will appoint,” National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith said at NAB Show-New York yesterday, adding, “He could do much worse than looking at the two Republicans that are there—Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly—they are superb.”
Among the other names believed to be in contention for leading the FCC is Eisenach himself. He previously headed the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a right-leaning anti-regulation think tank, and more recently has been a critic of Wheeler’s moves to regulate parts of the internet.
Trump will have a second chair to fill at the Commission when a seat earmarked for Democrats also becomes vacant within the next few weeks. President Obama re-nominated commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to a new five-year term last year but Senate Republicans—who previously said they would approve her nomination in exchange for Democrats’ agreeing to greenlight a new term for O’Rielly—reneged on the deal when Wheeler wouldn’t pledge to resign from his position during a hearing earlier this year.
The Senate could technically give Rosenworcel a new term during its lame duck session but most believe there’s nearly no chance of that happening since the GOP majority would rather allow the incoming president to make the selection. “It is unlikely now that she will be confirmed to another term,” Smith predicted. With Democrats soon in the minority at the FCC, some insiders say it is unlikely Rosenworcel would want to remain anyhow and they expect her to return to a private communications law practice.
Beyond staffing, Washington is coming to grips with changes that Trump is likely to bring to FCC policy as well. Some lobbyists are questioning whether he’ll take steps to reverse high-profile Wheeler initiatives including the television spectrum auction and net neutrality, the controversial rules that limit internet companies from slowing speeds.
Trump has said he’ll ask all federal departments to submit a list of every “wasteful and unnecessary regulation which kills” jobs and his administration will eliminate them. That includes a top-to-bottom review of the government’s entire regulatory code that would include a “temporary moratorium” on all new agency regulations that aren’t required by federal law. Trump has said he’ll also shrink the size of the government payroll. That means the FCC—which is already at its smallest budget and payroll in years—would likely face further staff cuts.