FCC chair nomination process important, but Senate bust up not expected

The FCC often fails to get the attention it deserves. Communications regulations might not be sexy, but they profoundly affect every aspect of American life.

This piece of wisdom from Bernie Sanders, from a Truthout report I recently wrote about possible deregulatory measures, illustrates why the issue is so important:

“If you are concerned about the economy, if you are concerned about health care, if you are concerned about foreign policy, you must be concerned about the media,” Sanders intoned. “Our right-wing friends have been able to set the stage that spending and deficit reduction are the major economic issues facing America when, in fact, recession, mass unemployment, decline in income and the growing gap between the rich and everybody else is, in fact, according to the American people, a far more important issue.”

Which is why it’s big news that current FCC chair Julius Genachowski announced on Friday that he’s stepping down in the next few weeks. A public interest group insider who I spoke to said that the next FCC chairman will have immense power “shaping the future of the internet,”and will make decisions that will affect internet accessibility and billions of dollars in commercial activity.

The expert did not expect a fight in the Senate over his or her confirmation, however. A few days before Genachowski’s announcement, Republican FCC commissioner Robert McDowell announced his retirement. As the Washington Post reported, “whoever the GOP pick is, that nominee could wind up paired with the Democratic nominee to replace Genachowski, following in the tradition of grouping one Democratic candidate with a GOP one for a smoother Senate confirmation.”

The possibility of industry friendly Republicans causing a ruckus over the next FCC chair will especially dissipate if rumored-to-be-front runner Tom Wheeler gets the nod. Wheeler has worked for both cell phone and cable company lobbyists. But his stint as a bundler for the Obama campaign might yield some howls from the right and grumbles from the left.

Whoever does gets the job could be constrained by the courts with respect to “Net Neutrality” — one of the most significant regulations the FCC oversees. Verizon sued the FCC over Net Neutrality rules it issued in December 2010, saying that the commission had no right to make the regulations. Despite Verizon’s concerns public interest groups have denounced the rules for exempting mobile devices. Arguments have not yet been scheduled, but the case is expected to be heard this summer.

If Wheeler’s personal blog is any indication, his views on Net Neutrality seem pretty aligned with the Obama administration’s. In 2009, he wrote about a “spectrum crisis looming” and said that “the industry’s spectrum situation reinforces the wireless industry’s ‘we are different’ message in the net neutrality discussion.”

Net Neutrality is, to borrow a Bidenism, a BFD, It stipulates that internet service providers must not discriminate how they treat traffic to different websites. Imagine, for example, Comcast giving NBC sites preferential treatment. Rules that would allow that sort of situation — an enclosure of the internet commons — could do untold damage to independent websites.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.