Biden to Select Replacement for Outgoing FCC Chair Ajit Pai

Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai announced he will step down from his position on January 20, 2021. The FCC senior Democratic member, Jessica Rosenworcel, is predicted to be one of the leading candidates to succeed Pai, although former FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn has also been mentioned. With Pai’s departure, president-elect Joe Biden will be able to work with Democrats shortly after Inauguration Day on such anticipated priorities as restoring net neutrality and expanding universal broadband access.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Clyburn, “a telecom, tech and media-industry consultant who served as FCC commissioner and acting chairwoman during the Obama administration,” is also the daughter of Representative James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), the House Majority Whip “whose endorsement of Biden was credited with helping Biden win the South Carolina primary and turning around his struggling campaign.”

With regard to Biden’s push for universal broadband, FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks, the only other Democrat on the commission and another possible candidate to replace Pai, reported that 18+ million households cannot afford broadband. Under Pai’s leadership, “the FCC recently launched a $16 billion auction process to subsidize the construction of rural broadband networks.”

Biden’s choice for FCC chair could halt the Trump administration attempt to “scale back Section 230” of the Communications Decency Act, which gives Internet companies immunity for what users post on their platforms.

With the departure of Pai and GOP member Michael O’Rielly, “Democrats would, in theory, hold a 2-1 advantage.” But Republicans could still confirm O’Rielly’s replacement prior to Inauguration Day, “setting up a 2-2 partisan deadlock until Biden can nominate a fifth member, with the Senate’s approval.”

President Trump has already nominated Nathan Simington, National Telecommunications and Information Administration senior adviser, to replace O’Rielly. The Senate Commerce Committee will vote this week “on whether to advance Simington’s nomination to the full Senate for consideration.” [UPDATE: Senate Committee Moves Trump’s Controversial FCC Pick Forward.]

CNBC reports that, “Pai’s departure makes it much less likely that significant action on the [Section 230] executive order will take place anytime soon.” By law, the five-person commission can “have no more than three commissioners from one party at any given time.” With O’Rielly’s departure, that means two seats will be open.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) said he would block Simington’s nomination “unless he agreed to recuse himself from Section 230-related regulations” because he played a role as a Commerce Department official in drafting “the petition instructing the FCC to reinterpret the statute under Trump’s order.”

Variety reports that, according to CBS former head of global government affairs John Orlando, Rosenworcel “has the best chance of becoming [FCC] chair,” because she has already been vetted twice, giving her a “smooth path to confirmation.” Clyburn, who is named to Biden’s transition team for the FCC, may want “something bigger” than chair, having taken “board seats at Lionsgate and RingCentral, which she would have to give up if named to the FCC.”

Related:
Trump Threatens to Veto Major Defense Bill Unless Congress Repeals Section 230, a Legal Shield for Tech Giants, The Washington Post, 12/1/20