Pai gets the call as weed-whacker-in-chief

24 January 2017 by Steve Blum
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Mainstream, of a sort.

Ajit Pai is the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, as predicted. An explicit announcement hasn’t been released – at least not as of earlier this morning – but Pai posted a thank you note and his colleagues have offered official congratulations, so take it as a given.

The appointment appears to be permanent. The FCC’s website has an historical listing of commissioners and chairs, and Pai is designated as “chairman”, while Mignon Clyburn, who held down the job while Tom Wheeler was awaiting confirmation in 2013, is listed as “acting chairwoman”. So take that as a given too.

Pai will need to be renominated to a full term and confirmed by the U.S. senate at some point, but that’s not an immediate problem. Designation as chair is within the president’s gift.

Like Trump, Pai has an over active Twitter account and a penchant for colorful hyperbole. Shortly after the election, he said he wanted to to “fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation”. Particularly, that means the FCC’s 2015 decision that reclassified broadband as a common carrier service, and all the rules – like network neutrality and privacy requirements – that flowed from it.

Even so, Pai is squarely in the mainstream of republican thinking regarding telecoms regulation in Washington, D.C. His appointment in 2012 was at the behest of congressional republicans and during the Obama administration he reliably voted on the losing side of the frequent three-to-two decisions produced by Tom Wheeler during his chairmanship.

Critics have characterised Pai as a “former Verizon lawyer”. While that’s true, it’s also a bit of a distortion. His resume includes a couple of years working for Verizon as a lawyer, as well as a stint at a private law firm, but he’s spent most of the past two decades in federal government jobs – clerk to a federal judge in Louisiana, and stints as a staff lawyer for the justice department, FCC, and republican-led U.S. senate committees.

The only way to get actual industry experience is to work for one of the companies that comprise the industry – duh – and it’s a rare telecoms regulator these days that knows how it looks from the other side. Neither of his two remaining colleagues – republican Michael O’Rielly and democrat Mignon Clyburn – can claim that kind of real world experience.

From the perspective of Beltway politics, Pai is not a radical choice.