FCC Set for Possible Partisan Stalemate After Nomination Fails

  • Rosenworcel departure could leave agency with 2-to-2 tie
  • Rules targeted by Republicans include net neutrality

The U.S. Senate adjourned without confirming Jessica Rosenworcel for a second term on the Federal Communications Commission, forcing her out of office and setting up the agency for a partisan deadlock as the Republican administration of Donald J. Trump begins.

Jessica Rosenworcel

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Without other changes, the Democrat’s departure would leave the FCC hindered, with two Republicans and two Democrats on the five-member panel, until the Senate can confirm a Republican to gain a majority.

Republicans are eager to begin pruning rules passed by Democrats. “We need to fire up the weed whacker,” Ajit Pai, the agency’s senior Republican, said in a Dec. 7 speech.

Rules at risk include the net neutrality regulation passed by Democrats in 2015 at President Barack Obama’s urging, which limits how internet service providers led by AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. handle web traffic. Other targets include privacy rules imposing obligations on carriers such as AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc., and ownership rules that restrict TV-station combinations by companies such as Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.

Democrats Clashed

Rosenworcel, 45, in office since 2012, has at times clashed with Chairman Tom Wheeler, a fellow Democrat and Obama appointee. She criticized his plan to lift a ban on mobile phone calls on airliners, said the agency moved too fast toward the net neutrality rule, and argued that it lacked authority to adopt Wheeler’s preference for changes to spur competition and reduce prices for cable set-top boxes.

Wheeler, 70, can stay with the commission until 2018 and he hasn’t said when he may leave. In the most recent transfer of power, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, left on Obama’s inauguration day although he had more than two years remaining in his term.

Tom Wheeler

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The Senate didn’t vote on Rosenworcel before adjourning early Saturday, an aide to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

It’s unclear whether the agency will take up AT&T’s proposed $85.4 billion purchase of HBO and CNN owner Time Warner Inc. The companies are assessing whether to retain the FCC licenses that would give the agency jurisdiction over the deal, AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said at a congressional hearing on Dec. 7.

Trump hasn’t said who he’s considering to lead the agency, which assesses mergers in the communications industry and regulates cable, wireless and broadcast companies. The FCC employs about 1,650 people and requested a budget of $358 million for fiscal 2017, down 7 percent from 2016.

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