December 15, 2016–FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said today that he plans to leave the agency on Jan. 20, 2017, the day that the Trump administration takes over.
“Serving as F.C.C. Chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Mr. Wheeler’s refusal to confirm that he would step down after the election had angered some senators and created an obstacle to the confirmation of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel for a second term. The Senate completed its work last weekend until the 115th Congress opens next month without confirming Ms. Rosenworcel. As a result, Ms. Rosenworcel must leave her job when the current congress ends on Jan. 3. Before the Senate left town, Mr. Wheeler had told Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) that he would step down immediately if it would help get Ms. Rosenworcel’s confirmed, an FCC official had said.
FCC Chairmen generally leave the agency before a new administration of a different party takes over so his announcement is not a surprise. But there had been speculation in the media and among some FCC observers that Mr. Wheeler might remain at the agency as a Commissioner after the Trump administration came in.
If Mr. Wheeler had remained and Ms. Rosenworcel was confirmed, the Democrats would have had a 3-2 majority, even though a Republican would still presumably be chosen to lead the agency and could set the agenda. If Mr. Wheeler departed and Ms. Rosenworcel was confirmed, or Mr. Wheeler stayed and Ms. Rosenworcel was forced to leave, it would have led to a 2-2 deadlock among Republicans and Democrats. With Mr. Wheeler and Ms. Rosenworcel both leaving, Republicans will have a 2-1 majority.
An FCC official said earlier this week that the Senate’s failure to vote on Ms. Rosenworcel’s nomination to another term was not surprising, citing a statement by Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) that a 2-1 Republican majority at the Commission would allow the agency to “begin to roll back the burdensome regulations it recently issued. In particular, he looks forward to working with the Republicans at the FCC and his colleagues in the Senate to reverse President Obama’s harmful regulations on broadband service providers that treat the Internet as a public utility,” an aide to the senator said last week (TRDaily, Dec. 8).
One of the Republican Commissioners – Ajit Pai or Mike O’Rielly – would be expected to be named acting Chairman. By tradition, that choice typically goes to the senior Commissioner of the president’s party – who is Mr. Pai.
At today’s FCC meeting, Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn said Mr. Wheeler “has made a bold impact on this agency and the ecosystem.” “The American consumer has benefited greatly in his quest for competition, completion, completion … and consumer protection,” she added. She highlighted FCC actions to adopt the net neutrality order and modernize the Lifeline program.
Ms. Rosenworcel at today’s meeting thanked Mr. Wheeler for “what has undeniably been an activist agenda.” “Like his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes, Chairman Wheeler brought passion and tenacity to the playing field each and every day,” Mr. Pai said in a statement. “Despite our differences in many areas of communications policy, I commend him for his years of public service. It has been a privilege to serve alongside him, and I wish him well in his future endeavors.”
“I truly thank Chairman Wheeler for his public service to our country,” Mr. O’Rielly said. “While we may not have always agreed on the substance or procedures of Commission work, Tom is passionate about his views and committed to solving communications problems, including our work together on Rate of Return reform. More importantly, I enjoyed the chance to get to know him on a personal level and chat on non-work matters, especially about our families. I wish Tom great success in any future endeavors he pursues.”
“Chairman Wheeler has served this country with distinction,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.). “He has worked tirelessly to make our communications networks fair and open and to ensure that all Americans have access to the Internet. He has worked to make our nation safer and our economy stronger. I thank him for his service.
“I urge President Obama to renominate FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel when the 115th Congress begins,” Mr. Reid added. “For far too long, Commissioner Rosenworcel’s nomination has been held hostage to partisan games. Chairman Wheeler has made clear to me that he will step down before January 20th if Commissioner Rosenworcel is confirmed. There is now no reasonable excuse for Republicans’ inaction. Senator McConnell and Senator Thune have personally committed to confirming Commissioner Rosenworcel, and they should honor that commitment as soon as possible next Congress.”
“Few leaders at the FCC have known how better to expand horizons by promoting competition in the telecommunications marketplace than Tom Wheeler,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.). “From preparing students for the global economy through the modernized E-Rate program, to promoting net neutrality as the governing principle of the internet, to ensuring online privacy protections, Tom Wheeler has led the FCC and our nation through an important pro-consumer, pro-competition era. Tom Wheeler is a telecommunications titan, and I thank him for his tremendous service to the American people.”
“Chairman Wheeler has done more to promote competition and consumer protection than any Chairman in recent memory,” said Gene Kimmelman, president and chief executive officer of Public Knowledge. “Consumers owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his steadfast commitment to making our digital future fair and accessible for all. Though Americans are losing a great consumer protection champion, we will all benefit from his legacy and the policies he’s leaving behind.”
Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, said, “When President Obama appointed Tom Wheeler Chairman, many people voiced open suspicion of a man who had led two major industry trade associations. But rather than be the lapdog of industry some feared (or hoped for), Tom Wheeler proved himself to be the most ferocious watchdog for consumers and competition in nearly two decades. In the days ahead, the public must be prepared to fight vigorously to keep the consumer protections he created.”
Michael Calabrese, director of the New America Foundation’s Wireless Future Project, said, “Tom Wheeler did more to promote a productive and competitive wireless future for America than any previous chairman. He insisted that network neutrality should apply equally to mobile networks, he rejected mergers that would have reduced mobile market competition, and he opened huge new sources of wireless spectrum by pioneering the sharing of grossly underutilized frequency bands.”
Sarah Morris, director-open Internet policy at New America’s Open Technology Institute, said, “Chairman Wheeler left an indelible mark on our country’s communications policy. Under his leadership, and with the support of Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel, the FCC worked tirelessly to protect consumer interests. The FCC enacted historic rules to preserve an open internet and protect consumer privacy, thwarted the harmful Comcast merger with Time Warner Cable, and reformed the Commission’s important E-rate and Lifeline programs—all within a framework grounded in improving competition and innovation and promoting a vision of the internet as an open platform for all voices. We applaud Chairman Wheeler for these and numerous other accomplishments, and we are grateful for the thoughtfulness with which he approached his policymaking.
“Yet as we celebrate the many, many accomplishments of the FCC under Chairman Wheeler, we also recognize the uncertain future ahead. Protecting the legacy of these reforms will be a top priority for OTI as we move forward under new FCC leadership,” Ms. Morris added.
Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron said, “When Tom Wheeler was named to head the FCC, we voiced serious reservations about how a former industry lobbyist could do the job. But he proved us wrong. We haven’t agreed with him on every decision, but time and again Wheeler showed a willingness to stand up to industry pressure, listen to voices outside the Beltway and — perhaps most importantly — to change his mind.
“His legacy will be as one of the most effective chairs ever to hold the post — judged rightfully not by the number of unanimous votes but by actual accomplishments,” Mr. Aaron added. “Wheeler didn’t come into this job as a Net Neutrality champion, but he will be remembered first and foremost for his leadership on that crucial issue and for the standing ovations he earned on the day of the FCC’s historic vote.”
Mr. Aaron continued, “He shares the credit with two colleagues, Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, for the Net Neutrality victory and for many of the FCC’s most important accomplishments in a generation, including reforming the Lifeline program, standing against the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, and establishing broadband-privacy protections. Unfortunately, the next administration has promised to undermine and overturn the major accomplishments of the Wheeler FCC. Industry lobbyists are dusting off their worst proposals. And the team leading the agency’s transition has even called for abolishing the FCC. … We call on the next administration and the new Congress to build on Wheeler’s legacy by appointing future chairs and commissioners who are willing to put people first — instead of rubber-stamping industry demands.”
“We thank Chairman Wheeler for his service to the American people as leader of the Federal Communications Commission,” said NCTA President and CEO Michael Powell, a former FCC Chairman. “Chairman Wheeler has presided over the Commission during a period of significant change and exciting innovation in the communications marketplace. Chairman Wheeler’s mantra from the beginning of his tenure has been ‘competition, competition, competition’ and he should be proud that American consumers are enjoying the benefits of today’s vibrant and highly competitive video and broadband sectors.”
Marci Ryvicker, an analyst for Wells Fargo Securities LLC, said in a research note that “we believe that a 2-1 Commission would allow for expedited deregulation – clearly a much better option than having to wait until mid-2017. We expect broadcast and cable stocks to be UP on today’s news as another potential overhang has been removed.” – Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org