FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has announced plans to step down from his role and leave the agency on January 20th, the day Donald Trump will be sworn in as president.
Wheeler’s decision continues a long-standing norm of FCC leaders leaving the agency when a new president is sworn in, allowing them to appoint a leader of their choosing. But until now, Wheeler had left open the possibility that he would stay around even after Trump was in office — something that, compared to this entire election cycle, didn’t actually sound that crazy. His term technically doesn’t end until late 2018.
Republicans essentially forced Wheeler’s hand on this. In Congress, they’ve refused to reconfirm Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, whose term is up at the end of the year. Without her, Wheeler wouldn’t have had the votes to get anything done at the commission. Should he have stayed into 2017, Wheeler would have been demoted to commissioner while Trump was free to nominate a new chairman and return Republicans to the majority.
Wheeler was nominated by President Obama in 2013 and immediately came under intense scrutiny for his ties to the cable industry. But over the following three years, Wheeler’s proved willing to anger the industry while protecting consumers’ interests.
It was under Wheeler that strict net neutrality was passed and internet providers were reclassified under Title II. More recently, Wheeler proposed and passed privacy protections for sensitive data shared while browsing the internet. And he tried — though ultimately failed — to upend the awful cable box market with rules that would have opened up cable channels to be used by streaming boxes.
Here’s Wheeler’s full statement about leaving the commission:
“Serving as FCC Chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life. I am deeply grateful to the President for giving me this opportunity. I am especially thankful to the talented Commission staff for their service and sacrifice during my tenure. Their achievements have contributed to a thriving communications sector, where robust investment and world-leading innovation continue to drive our economy and meaningful improvements in the lives of the American people. It has been a privilege to work with my fellow Commissioners to help protect consumers, strengthen public safety and cybersecurity, and ensure fast, fair and open networks for all Americans.”
The FCC isn’t likely to do much until Wheeler leaves — just yesterday, it cleared its schedule for an upcoming meeting.
Once Republicans take over, Wheeler’s biggest accomplishments will immediately come under fire. It’s not clear if Republicans will try to chip away at net neutrality or repeal it outright. But one way or another, the attack starts January 20th.