JESSELL AT LARGE

Safe Is The Word For Trump’s FCC, Thankfully

The newly constituted FCC is conservative and deregulatory, but in a way you would expect had any of the establishment Republicans won the White House last November. When Trump won, I worried that he would stack the FCC with nut-job loyalists so that he could follow through with his threats against the media. Luckily, that didn't happen.

I can’t get over the contrast between the White House and the FCC.

The White House seems to be in perpetual turmoil as a result of Trump’s inability to piece together coherent and consistent policies; speak clearly and honestly; and follow the simplest rules of presidential decorum.

This week, with his party desperately trying to assemble the Senate votes needed to eradicate Obamacare, Trumps throws another Twitter tantrum. He attacks MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough in terms befitting the Real Housewives of New Jersey.

It’s always something.

Meanwhile, just a mile and a half away, the FCC is bouncing along as if the Trump revolution were a bad dream.

Yes, the newly constituted FCC is conservative and deregulatory, but in a way you would expect had any of the establishment Republicans won the White House last November.

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When Trump won, I worried that he would stack the FCC with loyalists so that he could follow through with his threats against the media.

It didn’t happen.

Instead, he did the logical thing. He appointed Commissioner Ajit Pai to replace the departing Tom Wheeler as chairman.

Pai was the conventional (and smart) pick. He would have won the job by acclamation had his name been put before a joint convention of the principal industries the FCC regulates and the communications bar.

We received further confirmation this week of just how staid the Trump-era FCC will be with news that Trump has picked former Pai aide and current FCC General Counsel Brendan Carr to fill the last remaining vacancy on the commission.

Carr is as mainstream as you can get. After Georgetown, he went to law school at Catholic University School of Law with its unique and highly regarded communications program.

From there, he clerked for federal appeals court judge Dennis Shedd and then got his first real lessons in the practice of communications law at the white shoe firm of Wiley Rein.

As many ambitious young communications attorneys do to learn the inner workings of the FCC and make contacts, he joined the FCC general counsel’s office in 2012 and worked there for two years before being invited to join then-Commissioner Pai’s staff.

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Pai made him general counsel when he was appointed chairman in January.

The Carr pick came just two weeks after the White House said that it would return Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel to fill one of the two FCC seats set aside for the minority party.

Rosenworcel first joined the commission in 2012, but her reappointment to a second term got hung up in congressional politics late last year and she was forced into a several-month hiatus that I’m sure she hopes will end with quick confirmation this summer. I’m told she will be the first commissioner with a split tenure, making her the Grover Cleveland of the FCC.

(Editor’s note: After the column was posted, a reader alerted us to the fact there was another Grover Cleveland of the FCC. He was T.A.M. Craven, who served from 1937 to 1944 and again from 1956 to 1963.)

She is a real Democrat. She once worked for former Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the liberal Democrat from West Virginia. Rosenworcel dutifully supported Wheeler on most issues, including, significantly, his imposition of a tough net neutrality regime.

That Carr and Rosenworcel are thoroughly conventional picks suggests that Trump had little to do with them, and that probably is the case.

During the Clinton years, when Vice President Al Gore was in charge of communications policy, the White House more or less ceded the power to name the non-chairman commissioners to the reigning communications policymakers in Congress. That accounts for Rosenworcel’s resurrection.

It looks to me that Pai hand-picked Carr, although he could not have done so unless someone had cleared the way on Capitol Hill. Trump may deserve credit for that.

Carr and Rosenworcel are so conventional and their votes so predictable that it makes me ask, why bother?

Today, the commission comprises Pai, fellow like-minded Republican Michael O’Rielly and Democrat Mignon Clyburn.

So, Pai has the 2-1 majority and so can do pretty much anything he wants.

Adding Carr and Rosenworcel changes the numbers, but not the balance. When they take their seats, Pai will have a 3-2 majority to do pretty much anything he wants.

Leaving two seats vacant would save taxpayers a few million dollars a year, but who worries about a few millions when the common currency of Washington these days is billions?

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The argument for the fourth and fifth seats is that it makes the commission more democratic. More voices mean more ideas.

And there have been occasions where commissioners have gone rogue, have gone against a chairman of the same party on a major issue. This happened most famously in 1991.

Two Republican commissioners, Sherrie Marshall and Andy Barrett, dashed Republican Chairman Al Sikes’s plan to smite the highly controversial financial syndication rules. The two joined Democrat Ervin Duggan in voting to preserve the rules. It was a stinging loss for Sikes.

(Poor Al Sikes may have had the worse draw of commissioners in the history of the agency. The other commissioner with whom he had to deal was the politically savvy Democrat Jim Quello, who had his own power base on Capitol Hill and the unquestioning and fully reciprocated loyalty of the entire broadcasting industry.)

No one expects O’Rielly and Carr to give Pai the kind of trouble Marshall and Barrett gave Sikes.

Trump has one last chance of creating some mischief at the agency. Clyburn’s term expires today. The president could circumvent Congress and replace her with a conservative Democrat of his choosing.

He probably won’t. Clyburn is a rare and increasingly forceful voice for minorities in communications circles and, not incidentally, the daughter of South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn. If there is one thing Trump respects, it’s nepotism.

By law, Clyburn may continue serving through the end of the current Congress (January 2019) as long as she is not replaced. That may suit her fine. There is talk that her 77-year-old father plans to retire, clearing the way for her to run for his seat in 2018.

So, businesses that rely on the FCC for sound policy, prompt action and clear direction should be thankful that there has been no spill over from the White House — so far.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here. You can read earlier columns here.


Comments (8)

Leave a Reply

Gregg Palermo says:

June 30, 2017 at 3:54 pm

You mean the kind of nepotism that got Bobby Kennedy appointed as Attorney General to JFK? Yes, he passed the bar in 1951 but never practiced law before being appointed as the nation’s top lawyer. Nothing new about nepotism, except the hypocrisy.

    Linda Stewart says:

    July 5, 2017 at 6:28 am

    That’s exactly the kind of nepotism I’m talking about.

Julien Devereux says:

June 30, 2017 at 4:14 pm

Not exactly safe; net neutrality, anyone?

    Ellen Samrock says:

    June 30, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    You really want the FCC overseeing net neutrality? They can barely handle what they were originally set up to do; manage radio spectrum. Under the FCC’s net neutrality rules, any business that offered free WiFi, like a McDonalds or a cafe, that had a firewall or controls to restrict certain websites could be fined. No, better to let the FTC regulate net neutrality, if it, in fact, needs regulation.

    Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

    July 3, 2017 at 3:07 pm

    Got to love the hypocrisy, Mr. Play Pretend… biting the hand that feeds you…

John McElfresh says:

July 2, 2017 at 10:38 am

Jessell can not play it straight down the middle. In almost every article he writes, he shows his political leanings to the left.

Ellen Samrock says:

July 2, 2017 at 6:17 pm

When I first heard that Trump was in talks with Ajit Pai to possibly take over as chairman, I knew the FCC would be in good hands and that broadcasters would live to fight another day. Now if we can just get Mr. Pai to channel some of his enthusiasm for AM radio over to TV and particularly LPTV that would be great.

Dan Levitt says:

July 7, 2017 at 10:14 am

What is the need to deregulate when the FCC doesn’t enforce anything major to begin with


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