Scheming for a new FCC begins today in the senate

10 November 2020 by Steve Blum
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Nathan Simington is due to interview for the job of republican FCC commissioner today. The federal senate’s commerce committee is scheduled to consider what are now lame duck appointments to federal agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission. Even if the republican majority on the committee blesses Simington, he won’t be approved by the full senate unless republican FCC chair Ajit Pai agrees to step down before the end of the year. And maybe not then.

As a practical matter, the FCC is made up of three commissioners from the party holding the white house, and two from the other major party. Federal law actually says that no more than three commissioners can be members of the same party but, since third parties rank below North Korea on Washington, D.C. invitation lists, only democrats and republicans need apply.

Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly ends his term this year, creating the only automatic FCC vacancy. It’s the same situation as four years ago, when democrat Jessica Rosenworcel was termed out, and then chairman and Lobbyist-in-Chief Tom Wheeler was reluctant to give up his seat. If Rosenworcel had been confirmed and Wheeler stayed on, the Trump administration would have began with a majority-democrat FCC, albeit with a republican-appointed chair.

Even if Pai resigns and opens up a seat for a democrat, Simington still might not get the senate’s blessing. Trump named him after withdrawing an earlier re-nomination for O’Rielly, who had dared to wonder if maybe the FCC’s job didn’t include regulating free speech. Simington, who works in the federal commerce department, was Trump’s point man for rewriting the rules for social media platforms. On the other hand, O’Rielly is a former senate staffer who specialised in communications policy and remains popular on capitol hill.

Assuming the senate remains in republican hands, its leadership could well be looking for opportunities to chart a new course, away from the stormy Trump years. The few federal appointments in their hands would be a good place to start.