December 16, 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,” Mr. Wheeler, who joined the FCC in November 2013, 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 at times 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 (TRDaily, Dec. 12). 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 today’s 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.
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.
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). Mr. Wheeler mentioned Mr. Johnson’s comment when asked during a news conference after today’s meeting if he had failed to communicate that he would step down if Ms. Rosenworcel were confirmed. He said during the meeting that the resignation he submitted to President Obama today, effective Jan. 20, “is keeping with the commitments that I have repeatedly made since March that I would cooperate with the wishes of the new administration to assure a smooth transition, and that I would follow the precedent that when the White House changes parties, the Chairman resigns regardless of the amount of time left in the term.”
He also said that in a follow-up letter from Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R., S.D.) after a September hearing, the senator included a question showing that he knew Mr. Wheeler planned to step down after the election. He said he told the senator in a private conversation that he would step down.
At a March hearing, Mr. Thune asked Mr. Wheeler if he planned to resign after the new president took office to give that person a chance to name his or her own Chairman, as the senator noted is custom (TRDaily, March 2). “It’s a ways off. I understand precedent. I understand expectations,” Mr. Wheeler replied. “It’s probably not the wisest thing in the world to do to make some kind of ironclad commitment, but I understand the point you’re making.”
Such statements did not seem specific enough for some senators. Mr. Thune told reporters after the hearing that while he supported Ms. Rosenworcel’s confirmation, Mr. Wheeler’s refusal to commit to stepping down after a new president was sworn in might be causing senators to maintain holds on her nomination. Mr. Wheeler noted today that when asked last week if he would step down immediately if Ms. Rosenworcel were confirmed, he said that he would.
Chairman “Wheeler had decided in March that he would follow Commission precedent and step down if the Republican nominee were elected,” an FCC official said today. “However, Wheeler assumed that Hillary Clinton would likely win, which meant he couldn’t give a departure date in case her team needed him to stay on as Chairman for an extra few months to help with the transition. After the election, Wheeler had conversations with Democratic leaders, who firmly told him not to announce he was stepping down because it would complicate efforts to confirm Rosenworcel. When Sen. Reid’s team reached out to say that there was a potential offer on the table if he agreed to step down immediately, Wheeler agreed. If she gets confirmed before January 20, he will keep that promise.” Continue reading →