Tom Wheeler’s confirmation doesn’t seem to be in doubt, according to Senate Commerce Committee Chair Sen. Jay Rockefeller. The West Virginia Democrat told Wheeler during yesterday’s multihour hearing, “I think you’re going to be confirmed and I think you’re up to the job.”
Wheeler is managing director of Washington-based investment firm Core Capital. The former National Cable & Telecommunications Association chief ran NCTA from 1979 to 1984. Wheeler later became head of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association from 1992 to 2003.
I thought lawmakers would touch on Wheeler’s experience as an Obama fundraiser and campaigner, but that didn’t come up.
Radio, too, was little discussed, but I expected that as the broadband rollout took center stage. Indiana Republican Sen. Dan Coats zipped through his questioning, saying he had a radio interview to do. As someone who was in Congress, then left to represent clients and returned 12 years later, he urged Wheeler to approach all past clients with a “clean sheet” so they don’t expect favors from the commission. Wheeler assured Coats he would consider the “American public” as his client if confirmed.
The other, fleeting, radio reference was included in a long question from Washington Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell. Referencing Gannett’s recent announcement to buy Belo Broadcasting, she asked whether Wheeler thought Gannett was trying to get around cross-ownership rules.
Wheeler deftly sidetracked, saying he’s an advocate of diversity and that the previous chairman asked the GAO to weigh-in on this particular topic and he was eager to see that report. Cantwell tried again, saying “a lot of people say the newspaper industry is having problems and this is why we should have consolidation.”
“I’m a business person. It’s been my experience that the way to grow businesses when they are challenged by new technologies is to embrace those new technologies. And that’s a way of working yourself out of this kind of situation,” Wheeler replied. Then he said he was trying to avoid being too specific on ownership and wants to become more informed on the issue.
The only hiccup, if there was one, came from Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, asking the nominee whether the FCC has the authority to regulate political speech. “This is the one issue that has the potential to derail your nomination,” stressed Cruz, though he added he would wait for Wheeler’s written response.
Wheeler calmly noted that there is a pending proceeding on the issue and he has to become more informed about it. “I do not miss the expression on both sides,” he added, noting, “This is an issue of tension.”
Wheeler gave straightforward answers to many questions, including one about cellphone unlocking. Once the contract is up, the consumer should be able to switch providers, he said.
Overall, Wheeler said his business experience would make him “a better FCC chairman.” He called himself an unabashed supporter of competition.
He sounds like someone who would make the trains run on time. “I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with the FCC in my life,” he stressed. “It’s important that the FCC makes decisions in a timely fashion. There’s nothing worse than businesses not knowing what the rules are,” said Wheeler, stressing he’s aware the agency is a group and “not a sole proprietorship.”
I had to laugh when after a back-and forth on how he would treat merger reviews, (saying he’d only be guided by the facts of the case in front of him,) Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller asked Wheeler “if you can assure us you’ll have no votes between midnight and 6 a.m.,” referring to “problems in the past” with that happening.
Wheeler said “It’s certainly not my goal to be holding votes at that time of night.” He assured the lawmakers that he’s in bed most nights by 10 p.m.