Despite some party-line opposition to giving a new term to Federal Communications Commission chief Ajit Pai, the chairman and veteran commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel easily cleared a key hurdle on Wednesday as the Senate Commerce Committee voted to advance their nominations to the full Senate for a vote. But for Republican nominee Brendan Carr the path wasn’t quite so smooth.
At issue is a proposed extended term for Carr. The Trump administration has nominated the FCC’s general counsel to finish out former agency chief Tom Wheeler’s term through June 2018, as well as serve his own five-year term which would run until June 2023. Ranking member Bill Nelson (D-FL) said Democrats are “certainly willing” to go along with giving Carr the first part of his proposed term, and the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously voted in favor of doing that. But Nelson said giving Carr two consecutive terms is a step too far for Democrats.
Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said what concerns those on his side of the aisle is the prospect of what may happen when the task of filling the seat currently held by commissioner Mignon Clyburn comes up next year. If Senate Republicans were to refuse to fill that seat it would give the GOP a 3-to-1 majority on the Commission through the end of 2019. Democrats believe by requiring a second vote on Carr it will keep lawmakers from sidelining their party’s nominee. “It would create the proper pairing of a Democrat and a Republican who would be brought before us simultaneously, which is the tradition of the Committee,” Markey said.
But tradition isn’t always what it seems. Commerce Committee chair John Thune (R-SD) pointed out it wouldn’t be the first time that the Senate has given an FCC nominee two terms. He cited an Oct. 1997 vote when they considered the Clinton administration nomination of former commissioner Gloria Tristani who, similar to Carr, was selected to fill out one term followed by a full five-year term. “She was confirmed to both at the same time,” Thune said. He also suggested that a future FCC Democratic commissioner’s fate could be tied to any number of nominees the Commerce Committee routinely reviews.
Yet other Democrats said they’re also worried that Carr will just be a rubber stamp for any proposal put forward by the chairman. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is worried that as a former legal advisor to Pai, Carr won’t be able to go head-to-head with his former boss. “I want to make sure that as he gets on the Commission that he’s going to express his independent views so I would like to talk to him after some length of time on the FCC,” she said.
Republicans weren’t swayed. On a 14-to-13 party-line vote, the Committee voted to give Carr both terms as they sent his nomination to the full Senate. Ultimately what happens to his nomination now appears to be tied up in the dealmaking underway between Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “It is my clear understanding that Senator Schumer and the Majority leader are working out an arrangement on a package that includes a lot of nominations—and that will be only for the first term for Brendan Carr,” Nelson said.
Pai Loses Some Democrat Support
While no Republican lawmaker spoke out against returning Rosenworcel to the Commission, several Senate Democrats voted against giving a new term to Pai. They are largely unhappy with the GOP chairman’s support for rolling back the net neutrality regulations adopted by the FCC during the Obama administration. Others fear he will take steps to allow additional media consolidation.
In a list of just-released answers provided by Pai to a series of written questions by Senators, Pai was asked whether he believes the UHF discount—which allows a company to count only half of its coverage area when calculating the congressional ownership cap for stations above channel 14—is still necessary. The FCC voted to reinstate the policy in April, reversing a change made by the Commission last October. Pai said the change was merely to return the market to the “status quo” but said the FCC intends to consider the usefulness of the rule as part of a “more holistic” proceeding. “Later this year, the Commission will launch a new proceeding that will broadly consider both whether the national [TV] ownership cap should be modified and whether the UHF discount should be retained,” he said. But Pai didn’t indicate whether he intends to propose any changes to the radio ownership limits.
Meanwhile it now appears the ball is in the court of the lone Democrat still with a seat at the Commission. Senator Markey said Clyburn, whose term expired June 30, has not yet decided whether she wants to be re-nominated. Until that happens it’s unlikely congressional Democrats will begin putting together a list of potential successors they’d like President Trump to select from.