Wheeler’s confirmation as FCC chairman doesn’t seem to be in
doubt, but when it might happen was uncertain as of early July. As I
write, the GOP had not yet nominated a Republican to fill another
open slot at the FCC. Nominees traditionally are sent to the Senate
as a pair.
latest GOP potential nominee being vetted in early July was said to
be communications attorney Fred Campbell, director of the Competitive
Enterprise Institute’s Communications Liberty & Innovation
Project, who was a wireless adviser to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and
chief of the Wireless Bureau.
path seems clear. Senate Commerce Committee Chair Sen. Jay
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., told the nominee during a multihour hearing in
June, “I think you’re going to be confirmed and I think you’re
up to the job.”
Chairman nominee Tom Wheeler testifies before Congress.
is managing director of Washington-based investment firm Core
Capital. He was chief of the National Cable & Telecommunications
Association from 1979 to 1984, and head of the Cellular
Telecommunications & Internet Association from 1992 to 2003.
didn’t ask Wheeler about his experience as an Obama fundraiser and
was radio much discussed, but I expected that, as the broadband
rollout took center stage.
Republican Sen. Dan Coats zipped through his questioning, saying he
had to leave to do a radio interview. As someone who was in Congress,
left to represent clients and returned 12 years later, Coats urged
Wheeler to approach past clients with a “clean sheet” so they
don’t expect favors from the commission once he’s in charge.
Wheeler assured Coats he would consider the “American public” as
his client, if confirmed.
other fleeting radio reference was part of a long question from
Washington Democrat 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.
deftly sidetracked, saying he’s an advocate of diversity, noting
that the previous chairman had asked the GAO to weigh in on this
topic and saying he was eager to see that report. Cantwell tried
again: “A lot of people say the newspaper industry is having
problems and this is why we should have consolidation.”
replied, “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.” Then he said he
was trying to avoid being too specific on ownership and wants to
become more informed on the issue.
only hiccup, if you could call it that, 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,” Cruz said, though he added he
would wait for Wheeler’s full response later.
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.”
nominee gave straightforward answers to many questions, including one
about cellphone unlocking. Once a contract is up, he believes the
consumer should be able to switch providers.
Wheeler said his business experience is a plus. “What I learned
from my business experience will make me a better chairman.” He
called himself an unabashed supporter of competition.
sounded like someone who would make the trains run on time. “I’ve
spent a lot of time dealing with the FCC in my life. It’s important
that the FCC makes decisions in a timely fashion. There’s nothing
worse than businesses not knowing what the rules are.” However, the
former cable and wireless lobbyist also stressed that he’s aware
the agency is a group, “not a sole proprietorship.”
had to laugh when after a back-and forth on how he would treat merger
reviews, Wheeler said he’d only be guided by the facts of the case
in front of him. Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller then asked “if
you can assure us you’ll have no votes between midnight and 6
a.m.,” referring to such “problems in the past.”
replied, “It’s certainly not my goal to be holding votes at that
time of night.” To hearty laughter, he assured the lawmakers that
he’s in bed most nights by 10 p.m.
clear lawmakers on both sides of the aisle feel comfortable about
Wheeler leading the commission. In fact, after the committee took a
one-hour break for floor votes, everyone came back. Rockefeller joked
he had never seen that on this particular committee. Waxing
enthusiastic, the West Virginia Democrat called Wheeler a “pioneer”
in both the cable and wireless industries: “You understand the
power of technology. Your career is one of innovation and
the apparent slam-dunk for Wheeler, part of me would like to see
Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn hold the chair, minus the “acting”
label, as a rite of passage for women’s rights. Clyburn already is
the first woman in the agency’s 79-year history to head the FCC.
(With its current three members, the commission is constituted
entirely of minority and women for the first time in memory.)
relationship with women’s rights goes back a few years. My mother
fought for women’s right to wear pantsuits in her office in the
early 1970s. Later in that decade, I marched on the mall in
Washington with NOW, listening to speeches from Gloria Steinem and
Jean Stapleton, among others, as they tried to secure passage of the
Equal Rights Amendment — an amendment that has been reintroduced in
every session of Congress since 1982.
Stimson is news editor and Washington bureau chief.