WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission could get two new members by mid-October if the leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee get their way, though a chance of a hold on chairman nominee Tom Wheeler remains a possibility.
Wheeler has already been approved by the committee — there was a single “no” vote — and Republican nominee Michael O’Rielly got his day in the hot seat last week as the committee considered his nomination for the seat once held by Robert McDowell.
Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said last week following the hearing that he would set a vote on O’Rielly’s nomination “soon” — which could mean as early as this week — and push for quick Senate consideration. Ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) said he hoped there would be a full complement of commissioners by mid-October.
NOT SO FAST
The only apparent potential stumbling block to that would be a hold on the Wheeler nomination.
O’Rielly’s nomination hearing is definitely a step toward confirmation, but the timing of his arrival at the commission is tied to Wheeler’s. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was the “no” vote. That didn’t matter in the Commerce Committee, where the majority rules. But a single senator can put a hold on a nomination, and Cruz continues to keep that possibility on the table.
Cruz has said he wants Wheeler to commit to not using the FCC’s rules about sponsorship identification to require more specific information about the sponsors of political ads. Wheeler has suggested he understands the concern, but in his answer to Cruz would not foreclose any possibility, responding that he would be guided by the U.S. Constitution and legal precedent in deciding the scope of the FCC’s provisions.
According to a Cruz aide, the senator is still not satisfied with Wheeler’s answer, and the hold threat remains.
In his written testimony Wheeler invoked both Ronald Reagan and Thomas Jefferson in championing relatively hands-off government, and said that one of his goals at the commission would be to weed out unnecessary regulations or rules with an untoward economic impact, sounding much like his predecessor.
O’Rielly outlined a regulatory philosophy of light-touch regulations used only when necessary. He warned against trying to anticipate a fast-moving market such as the Internet, which he called an “extremely disruptive technology that changes every market it touches.” Both industry and regulators “would be wise to embrace it, rather than control or manage it,” he said.
O’Rielly, who has worked for Congressional Republicans for two decades, planted a deregulatory flag at the hearing. He said he was inclined to consider — language used during nominee hearings is always couched — loosening media-ownership regulations. He said he would have to check the record and take impact on diversity into account, but appeared ready for the FCC to finally weigh in on ownership.
O’Rielly hedged an answer about whether he thought broadcasters were using shared-services agreements to circumvent local ownership rules, but suggested they were just trying to work within the system given the FCC’s inaction on loosening those rules.
He was less circumspect when it came to indecency. He pledged to enforce the FCC’s indecency rules, and said he understood congressional and parental concern about kids’ access “unwanted” to content.
O’Rielly also had plenty to say about the FCC trying to limit bidders in the incentive auctions. Saying he had been following auctions “exceptionally closely” for 20 years, he said: “When the commission has tried to micromanage or manipulate spectrum auctions, it has often been problematic.”
O’Rielly pledged to work with Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller to modernize the E-rate program and get the spectrum auctions right, so those sales could pay for the emergency communications network Rockefeller has been pushing for since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
While the hearing was mostly smooth sailing, O’Rielly did raise some Democratic eyebrows with the last line of his testimony, an emphatic, standalone exhortation to “stay strong for freedom” (the line was bolded in his written testimony). O’Rielly had also given a shout out to 20 years’ worth of Hill staffers he had worked with, and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) asked if any were Democrats.
O’Rielly said he had worked well with both sides of the aisle on communications policy. He said he had woven the “freedom” theme into his written testimony and meant that freedom infused the mission of the FCC, freedom from unnecessary regulations, for example, or protecting the freedom of the Internet.
“As a nation, we achieve the greatest outcome when we allow our companies to freely compete and fight for consumers’ attention and approval,” he said in that testimony, going on to quote Thomas Jefferson’s take on freedom about “neither restraining nor aiding [citizens] in their pursuits.”
Both FCC chairman-designate Tom Wheeler and Republican member Michael O’Rielly could be in place by mid-October, though a hold on Wheeler’s nomination remains a possibility.