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Playing Politics at the FCC

Against the broader backdrop of national politics in America, the current feuding within and around the FCC is little more than a sideshow, but that doesn't mean it's not vicious on its own more limited scale.

From a substance standpoint, newly minted Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai has begun wiping away regulatory initiatives started by former Chairman Tom Wheeler. In the last week alone, he has revoked Lifeline broadband funding reimbursements for nine Internet service providers citing a need "to prevent waste, fraud and abuse," dismissed zero-rating inquiries issued to AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), T-Mobile US Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), and rescinded a Digital Infrastructure Paper published in the middle of January offering recommendations on how to improve and accelerate broadband investment nationally.

None of these moves is particularly surprising given the differences in opinion between the current FCC leadership and the prior one, but they have caused a ramp-up in rhetoric between Chairman Pai and the current lone Democratic commissioner, Mignon Clyburn. In responding to Pai's latest actions Clyburn said on Friday: "My office requested more than the allotted two days to review the dozen items released today. We were rebuffed. Then, we simply asked to have the Bureaus comply with the reasoned decision-making requirements of the APA [Administrative Procedure Act]. No deal. It is disappointing to see this Chairman engage in the same actions for which he criticized the prior Chairman."

Clyburn also referred to last Friday as "take out the trash day," referring to the practice of releasing controversial news at the end of a week when it's less likely to get covered by the press.

Pai, for his part, published a statement justifying the FCC's latest actions as appropriate in response to the last-minute or "midnight regulations" passed by Chairman Wheeler just before he resigned his post.

"In the waning days of the last Administration, the Federal Communications Commission's Bureaus and Offices released a series of controversial orders and reports," said Pai in the statement. He added, "These last-minute actions, which did not enjoy the support of the majority of Commissioners at the time they were taken, should not bind us going forward. Accordingly, they are being revoked."

Pai also instituted a new process reform last week pledging to share information with his fellow commissioners about every item tagged for consideration in an open meeting before releasing details to the public. He took the opportunity in stating his pledge to poke at former Chairman Wheeler for failing to be forthcoming in his own tenure.

"During the past few years, the Chairman's Office often briefed the press or published a blog about matters to be voted upon at the FCC's monthly meetings before sharing those matters with Commissioners," said Pai. "As a Commissioner, I thought that actions like these were inappropriate and disrespectful of other Commissioners. Now, as Chairman, I still hold that view."


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The tenor at most FCC meetings is typically genial, with shared laughter among the commissioners and self-effacing jokes from Chairman Pai about his famous Reese's Peanut Butter Cups coffee mug. But that geniality clearly masks a greater antipathy, as demonstrated not only by statements from current commissioners, but also by former Chairman Wheeler now that he's returned to life as a private citizen. Wheeler recently called Pai's decision to drop set-top regulation from the FCC's agenda a "$200 million Pai Tax on helpless cable subs." (See Pai Opposes Title II, FCC Alums Oppose Pai.)

Wheeler also aired some of the difficulties he had with Pai as a colleague in an interview for Marketplace in late January, noting that Commissioner Pai refused to join him for one-on-one meetings for two years before Wheeler left office. "It's hard to work together when you cancel meetings to talk together," said Wheeler.

It just goes to show that good-natured palling around among the FCC commissioners (present and former) doesn't mean they're afraid to lash out at each other when they disagree, or perhaps when they sense political advantage.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

msilbey 2/7/2017 | 12:59:04 PM
Never shy FCC commissioners have never been shy about expressing their opinions, but I do find the the difference between in-person politeness and written tongue lashings to be striking.
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