WASHINGTON, D.C. — Much has changed since the FCC‘s Chairman and Commissioners were asked to participate in a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing.
The last hearing, held six months ago, turned into a three-hour that included such highlights as Chairman and South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune assailing then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, labeling him as a leader who has “too often pursued a highly partisan agenda.”
It overshadowed an endorsement of AM radio from a Montana senator, among other issues of importance to broadcasters.
Wednesday’s FCC oversight hearing — the first for recently minted FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — was held with a much more congenial tone … even from Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who was quick to express “my continued frustration that Jessica Rosenworcel is not sitting before us today as a commissioner.” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) echoed those sentiments.
Following the oral presentation of prepared remarks from Sen. Thune, Sen. Nelson, Chairman Pai and Commissoners Mignon Clyburn and Michael O’Rielly, Thune immediately turned the clock back two decades by noting former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt.
Hundt, who presided over the FCC during President Clinton’s first term and over a Commission that reigned as the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was signed into law, has lauded Pai for his leadership and for setting a largely positive atmosphere at the Portals since succeeding Wheeler in late January.
Thune, like Hundt, is pleased with what he’s seeing from Pai thus far. But, Thune believes Pai has a big task ahead in turning around staff morale in every branch of the Commission. Thune shared that the global satisfaction rate at the FCC was one of the lowest among government agencies in 2014 and 2015, and that while this is something that Pai inherited, it required his attention.
Pai is ready for the task. He told the committee members, “I take this issue extremely seriously, and I will do whatever I can to establish a spirit of congeniality throughout the agency.”
NO EARLY EXIT FOR CLYBURN
Prior to Inauguration Day, when the drama regarding whether former Chairman Wheeler would stay on as a Democratic Commissioner or exit the FCC, there was chatter across the Capitol that Clyburn — now the lone Democrat on the FCC — would step down.
That didn’t happen, and Clyburn’s term ends at the end of June.
Still, Thune asked Clyburn point blank if she will commit to serving out her full term.
Clyburn expressed mild surprise at Thune’s inquiry, and strongly contested the suggestion.
“There is no plan that would do anything that would jeopardize the institutionality of this organization that I love so much,” she said.
The discussion then turned to the “repack” process that TV stations will undertake following the close of the FCC’s spectrum auction, with Sen. Schatz and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) addressing the time frame established under the Wheeler Commission.
Asked by Wheeler if they would support legislative actions to ensure that no consumer is negatively impacted, should the 39-month repack time span fail to provide enough transition time for broadcasters, Clyburn and Pai said yes.
“Without being insulting, depending how it read, I would,” O’Rielly responded.
Later asked by Moran about the repack time frame, Pai admitted that he “had some concerns about agency’s course,” and at this point the Commission’s focus was “to ensure a smooth and successful transition.”
UDALL GRILLS PAI ON WHITE HOUSE INFLUENCE
President Trump, through his personal use of Twitter, has not been shy in branding the U.S. media “the enemy.”
Does FCC Chairman Ajit Pai share this view?
We will never know, even though New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall repeatedly asked him if the FCC is truly independent of the White House. In a prolonged inquiry, Pai refused to engage in any political debates regarding the media and comments Trump has made about the media, and assured the subcommittee that the FCC acts independently.
THUNE THANKFUL OF COMMISSION CHANGES
At the last oversight hearing for the FCC, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Thune said that he hoped to see changes to how the Commission operates.
“I urged ‘all members of the Commission to treat each other fairly, to respect the law, to be willing to ask Congress for guidance, and to seek consensus whenever and wherever possible,'” he said. “While it is still early days, I am heartened because the new FCC leadership seems to have heeded this advice.”
He commended Pai’s first actions “to make much needed reforms to improve the agency’s processes and transparency. Counter to the trend of Chairman Pai’s recent predecessors, who often sought to amass as much power in the chairman’s office as they could, these simple steps instead empower the public and the other commissioners.”
Thune also noted that it was “nice to see the FCC finally move forward with two broadcasting items that will help AM radio and broadcast television better serve the American public.”
But, Pai has, in Thune’s view, much to accomplish in the area of increased bipartisanship on the Commission.
“I was a vocal critic of the previous chairman’s hyper-partisan leadership style, and I recognize it will not be an easy task to rectify some of the agency’s biggest missteps from the last few years,” Thune said. “I am referring, of course, primarily to the 2015 Title II order and the subsequent broadband privacy order. While I am sure there are other actions that may need to be revisited, I do think we need to hit reset on both of these items. I’m glad to see the FCC has already started that process by staying certain parts of the rules that were set to go into effect last week.”
NELSON SHOWS ‘FRUSTRATION’ OVER ROSENWORCEL EXIT
As the leading Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, Ranking Member Nelson took the opportunity to reinforce his belief that the FCC “is one of the most important consumer protection agencies of the federal government.”
He noted, “For the past eight years, the FCC has had the American consumer’s back. Ultimately, for this senator, the success or failure of the commission rests not on the fulfillment of special interest wish lists, but on how those who are least able to protect themselves have been treated and whether first amendment rights, including those of journalists, are vigorously protected.”
Since assuming the chairmanship in the last few weeks, the FCC has, in the words of Nelson, “acted to prevent millions of broadband subscribers from receiving key information about the rates, terms, and conditions of their service; acted to guarantee that broadband subscribers will have less protections with respect to the security of their online data, while promising to further weaken the duties broadband providers owe to protect the web browsing history and other personal information of their paying subscribers; threatened the expansion of broadband into the homes of low-income Americans by limiting the effectiveness of new Lifeline program reforms; and, finally, formally rescinded an FCC staff report detailing the implementation of the agency’s comprehensive E-Rate modernization effort that sent shock waves through schools and the libraries across the nation, which are worried that you will try to upend this highly functioning and bipartisan program.”
It was one of the few outright assaults of Pai heard during the oversight hearing.
“These are actions that directly impact the lives of millions of Americans and I sincerely hope they are not a sign of things to come,” Nelson warned. “At the end of the day, the FCC has a responsibility to put the public interest ahead of powerful special interests.”
In closing, Nelson expressed his continued frustration that Rosenworcel was not sitting before the Committee as a commissioner.
“The failure to confirm her last Congress, frankly, is a black mark on the Senate,” Nelson said. “The president’s decision to pull her nomination last week was truly unfortunate.”
Schatz also expressed his disappointment in the decision by the Trump Administration to rescind Rosenworcel’s renomination by President Obama in the waning days of his administration.
“I can only hope that the White House will see the error of its ways and re-nominate this impressive public servant for another FCC term once again,” Nelson said. “If that happens as it should, it is imperative for the Senate leadership to live up to its promise and confirm her nomination with all dispatch.”
RBR + TVBR