With the US Senate shutting down for the holidays, the FCC appears to be on the edge of whittling down its team of Commissioners to an even split of two Democrats and two Republicans.
Senate Democrats had hoped to vote on the reconfirmation of Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel before the end of the year. But despite the Senate Commerce Committee's unanimous approval of her nomination for a second term more than a year ago, Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) did not bring a vote on her continued tenure to the full Senate floor. Without that vote, Commissioner Rosenworcel will have to step down from her post by the end of 2016.
The fight over Rosenworcel's re-confirmation seemed to coalesce around the news that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler was unwilling to announce his own departure date despite the election of Republican Donald Trump to the White House. Typically, an FCC chairman will leave office when a new president is elected, but it's not required by law. Recently, Multichannel News reported that Wheeler would be willing to step down immediately if it would guarantee a vote for Rosenworcel, but that wasn't enough to force a vote before the Senate recess.
Technically, the Senate is still holding pro forma sessions this week, but, as the name implies, very little business is expected to take place during those sessions, and many senators have likely already left town for the holidays.
With Rosenworcel's departure, the FCC will drop down to four commissioners: Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn on the left, and Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly on the right. The ideological tie means neither side will be able to push through controversial orders. Several recent votes by the FCC have split along party lines, including rulings on media ownership and Internet privacy where the Democratic commissioners exercised their majority over Republican dissent. (See Trump Win Will Reshape FCC and The Set-Top's Not Dead, Set-Top Regulation Is.)
Once President-elect Trump enters the White House, Chairman Wheeler will have to leave his position as head of the FCC, but his term as commissioner technically continues into November, 2018. Trump will get to nominate a new candidate for chairman and also a third Republican to the Commission, giving Republicans a 3-2 majority. If Wheeler stays on at the agency, he and Commissioner Clyburn will represent the Democratic minority. If he resigns, Trump will nominate another Democratic candidate to fill his position.
It is widely assumed that the FCC under a President Trump will take a more hands-off approach to regulation and may even look to roll back the Open Internet Order (i.e. net neutrality) passed in February of 2015. (See Trump Team Appoints Net Neutrality Naysayers for FCC Transition.)
Current names reportedly being floated for FCC chairman include Commissioner Pai, lawyer and FCC transition advisor Jeff Eisenach, and, according to one report, possibly former AT&T and Comcast CTO David Fellows.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading