With the flurry of changes happening at the FCC over the past few months, it may be hard to believe that the commission has been short staffed the entire time. But since the beginning of the Trump administration, the FCC has been missing two key positions and the associated staffers that support them. Now Trump is about to fill in the gaps, and it means the FCC will be able to start accomplishing a lot more.
The Federal Communications Commission is supposed to be led by five commissioners (one of whom serves as chairman), but only three have been in place since late January. That’s meant fewer people to deal with day-to-day regulatory issues, less expertise on the many technical questions the commission faces, and the potential for stalled votes, since a minimum of three commissioners is needed to approve new policies.
Soon, that should all change. Two weeks ago, President Trump nominated Jessica Rosenworcel, a former commissioner forced to depart in January when her term ran up. And just last night, he nominated Brendan Carr, who is currently the FCC’s general counsel and previously served as a legal advisor to Ajit Pai before he was named commission chairman.
Both nominees still have to be approved by the Senate, which obviously has some high-profile issues it may want to attend to first. But when attention does come around to the nominees, it’s likely that both will see confirmation at the same time.
With Rosenworcel, we know what to expect. She was on the commission for nearly five years before departing, during which time she was a fairly reliable liberal vote, a strong backer of net neutrality, an advocate for opening up new spectrum for Wi-Fi, and showed herself willing to break off when a well-intentioned proposal seemed to go wrong, as she did during the debate over opening up cable boxes last year. The FCC can’t be staffed by more than three people of the same party, which is why Trump is nominating someone with such divergent views. Rosenworcel is the Democrats’ pick, not his.
Carr we know less about, but he’s pretty widely recognized as a qualified nominee. Businesses love him: Comcast referred to his “vast knowledge” and Verizon mentioned his “deep knowledge” in statements commending the nomination. His soon-to-be peer, the Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn, said he’s “well respected on both sides of the aisle.” And Evan Swarztrauber, director of public affairs at the libertarian think tank TechFreedom, said in an email to The Verge that Carr’s background “shows that he is an accomplished and talented attorney who is well-versed in the most pressing issues facing both the Commission and the country.”
Of course, Carr is also being nominated as a Republican, giving the majority a firmer hold. Once three commissioners vote on an item, the other two are forced to take a vote, too, and Republicans can use that to move things along at a quicker pace. They also no longer face the threat of the lone Democrat on the commission skipping a vote so that an item can’t go through.
That said, Clyburn has shown herself unwilling to abstain from votes just to delay the inevitable — like the passage of Pai’s proposal to reverse net neutrality. At one point, she even criticized Pai for threatening to go around her and use what’s essentially executive power to get something done, should she fail to vote. Voting, she said at the time, “preserved some degree of procedural integrity.”
“A three person commission has not prevented them from making policy,” says Todd O’Boyle, media director at the watchdog group Common Cause.
So even though the commission is being given a firmer Republican majority, there won’t necessarily be a huge partisan impact once Carr takes his seat. Instead, having five commissioners in place will mostly just make it easier for the FCC to get its daily tasks done.
“There’s so much to be done on wireless spectrum,” O’Boyle says. “We’ve got a very big broadcast merger in Sinclair and Tribune that the FCC has to review ... We just got through the [spectrum] auction pretty recently, so broadcast has to be repacked, spectrum has to be deployed by the wireless providers. So there’s an awful lot that needs to be done and actually having a full compliment of commissioners means the FCC can do the work in the public interest.”
While the commissioners may come at high-profile issues like the Sinclair–Tribune merger differently, most of these items are largely nonpartisan issues. “So much of the work is really about technical issues and meeting the needs of the American public,” O’Boyle says. “I would hope that having a full complement of commissioners, each of which brings their own priorities and their ability to focus their staff on particular issues, would mean that we can see the agency executing on more consensus priorities.”
There’s no schedule yet for when the final two commissioners will head to the Senate for confirmation, meaning the FCC may continue as is for another couple weeks or months. While the FCC has already been able to push through big changes like its proposal to reverse net neutrality, assuming both commissioners get seated, it’ll be far less hamstrung on the day-to-day issues that typically take up its staff’s time.