Ajit Pai announces departure from FCC after four-year deregulatory blitz

November 30, 2020 by No Comments

Enlarge / FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaking at a press conference on October 1, 2018, in Washington, DC.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced today that he will leave the FCC on January 20, 2021, the day Joe Biden will be inaugurated as president. In his four years as FCC chief, Pai deregulated the broadband industry, eliminated net neutrality rules, and justified his deregulatory agenda by using faulty data and taking credit for broadband deployments that were planned before he became chairman.

Pai called being chairman “the honor of a lifetime.”

“I am grateful to President Trump for giving me the opportunity to lead the agency in 2017, to President Obama for appointing me as a Commissioner in 2012, and to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and the Senate for twice confirming me. To be the first Asian-American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege. As I often say: only in America,” Pai said in his statement today.

As per tradition in which presidents nominate commissioners from both parties, Obama nominated Pai in 2012 at the request of Senate Republicans. When Democrats were in power, Pai fought against the Obama-era FCC’s decisions to adopt consumer-protection rules such as net neutrality and broadband-privacy regulations. When Trump became president and promoted Pai to the chairmanship, he set out to overturn some of the biggest decisions made by his predecessor, Democrat Tom Wheeler.

Democrats have path to 2-1 majority in January

Pai’s departure from the FCC would give the Biden administration a 2-1 Democratic majority immediately upon the new president’s inauguration. The FCC is currently 3-2 in Republicans’ favor, but Republican Michael O’Rielly is leaving at the end of 2020 because Trump pulled O’Rielly’s renomination. Trump’s choice to replace O’Rielly has not been confirmed by the Senate.

It’s likely that Biden and the Senate will work out a deal to add one Democrat and one Republican to fill the commission’s two empty seats sometime in 2021, eventually giving Democrats a 3-2 majority. But a Democratic-majority FCC could get moving on restoring net neutrality rules and other regulatory matters with a three-member group consisting of Democrats Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, and Republican Brendan Carr.

Rosenworcel, who has been an FCC commissioner since 2012 and is widely respected by lawmakers and consumer advocates, could be promoted to FCC chair by Biden on either an interim or permanent basis. Starks has been on the FCC less than two years and is not seen as a leading candidate for the chair spot. If Biden doesn’t want to make either Rosenworcel or Starks the chair, he could bring in a new Democrat for the role as Obama did with Wheeler in 2013. One possible chair candidate is former commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who has already been appointed to a Biden transition team that will review the FCC.

Social-media crackdown likely dead

Biden’s election victory likely spelled doom for Trump’s plan to impose a crackdown on social-media companies like Twitter and Facebook, which have been trying to counter Trump’s attempts to spread misinformation on their platforms. A few weeks before the election, Pai announced a proposal to implement Trump’s request, which would limit legal protections for social media websites that block or modify content posted by users.

After the election, Congressional Democrats called on Pai to “immediately stop work on all partisan, controversial items” during the presidential transition period. Pai did not immediately respond to that request, and in today’s statement Pai did not say anything about policy plans for the remainder of his term. Pai also didn’t say anything about his post-FCC plans; he was a Verizon lawyer from 2001 to 2003, and then held several government positions before joining the FCC.

Democrats’ upcoming 2-1 majority was made possible by Trump’s decision to pull O’Rielly’s renomination, which came shortly after O’Rielly refused to back the social-media crackdown. If Trump hadn’t pulled the renomination, the Senate could have voted to give O’Rielly another term, deadlocking the FCC at 2-2 in the early part of the Biden administration.

There is still a chance for a 2-2 deadlock if the Republican-controlled Senate confirms Nathan Simington, Trump’s pick to replace O’Rielly.

Pai helped telecoms “at the expense of the public”

“Unfortunately, Chairman Pai has succeeded in many of his efforts to promote the interests of large telecommunications, broadcasting, and cable companies at the expense of smaller competitors and, especially, the public,” Benton Institute Senior Counselor Andrew Schwartzman said in a statement today. “We have less competition and higher prices as a result of these policies, some of which may still be overturned in the courts.”

Pai’s court losses included one that overturned his attempt to take broadband subsidies away from tribal residents and another that overturned his attempt to kill environmental and historic-preservation reviews of 5G small cells. Though Pai’s repeal of net neutrality rules was upheld in court, judges overturned Pai’s related decision to preempt state-level net neutrality laws. Pai won a case allowing the FCC to preempt local fees and regulations imposed on wireless carriers deploying 5G networks.

In his statement today, Pai said the FCC has “delivered for the American people over the past four years: closing the digital divide; promoting innovation and competition, from 5G on the ground to broadband from space; protecting consumers; and advancing public safety. And this FCC has not shied away from making tough choices. As a result, our nation’s communications networks are now faster, stronger, and more widely deployed than ever before.” O’Rielly issued a statement applauding Pai for deregulating the broadband industry and for moves that “open[ed] up more spectrum bands for commercial use, and expand[ed] broadband access to unserved Americans.”

Rosenworcel, who consistently opposed Pai’s deregulatory moves and criticized the FCC majority for not doing more to help Americans access broadband during the pandemic, issued a statement about Pai’s departure today. “While we did not always agree on policy matters, I always valued our shared commitment to public service,” Rosenworcel said. “Serving the American people is a tremendous honor and I wish him the best in the future.”

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