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Wheeler a Lock at the FCC?

Former cable and wireless lobbyist says the public would be his client

Tom 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.

The 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.

Wheeler’s 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.”

FCC Chairman nominee Tom Wheeler testifies before Congress.

Wheeler 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.

Lawmakers didn’t ask Wheeler about his experience as an Obama fundraiser and campaigner.

Nor was radio much discussed, but I expected that, as the broadband rollout took center stage.

Indiana 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.

The 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.

Wheeler 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.”

Wheeler 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.

The 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.

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.”

The 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.

Overall, 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.

He 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.”

I 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.”

Wheeler 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.

It’s 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 leadership.”

Despite 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.)

My 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.

Leslie Stimson is news editor and Washington bureau chief.