Who's Who in Telecommunications Policy -- Part 1: The 115th Congress

Committee Members for the 115th Congress

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Robbie's Round-Up for the Week of January 9-13, 2017

As we await the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump on January 20, the 115th Congress is back at work. In a week that contained a flurry of nomination hearings, a late-night vote-a-rama, and an interesting press conference, the key Congressional communications policy committees announced their membership. Below we take a look at the new committee rosters -- as well as what to expect for the new Federal Communications Commission.

House Communications Subcommittee
While many House committees and subcommittees can impact communications policy, the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee is the most relevant, as it has jurisdiction over: electronic communications, both Interstate and foreign, including voice, video, audio and data, whether transmitted by wire or wirelessly, and whether transmitted by telecommunications, commercial or private mobile service, broadcast, cable, satellite, microwave, or other mode; technology generally; emergency and public safety communications; cybersecurity, privacy, and data security; the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Office of Emergency Communications in the Department of Homeland Security; and all aspects of the above-referenced jurisdiction related to the Department of Homeland Security.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) will be the new chair, replacing Chairman Greg Walden, who got a promotion to head the full Commerce Committee after his involvement with the GOP’s success in the 2016 election.

“The American people don't have any faith in this failed Lifeline 'Obamaphone' program – it needs to be abolished and the FCC needs to answer our questions. Obamaphone welfare symbolizes how the culture of government dependency is weakening America. Allowing this failed program to continue operating during the government shutdown is wrong and something needs to be done about it. The FCC shouldn’t simply get to put a band-aid on the program and say they’re saving money – people believe it should be eliminated altogether.” -- Rep Blackburn

Rep. Blackburn is in charge. What does this mean?
The most notable effect this may have on the subcommittee’s agenda is in regards to network neutrality. Rep. Blackburn has been a strong opponent to net neutrality and, in 2015, she introduced the Internet Freedom Act, which aimed to overturn the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Additionally, Rep. Blackburn has worked to preserve laws that make it difficult for cities and towns to offer their own municipal broadband Internet services, filing legislation to prevent the FCC from preempting those state laws, saying, “I strongly believe in states’ rights.” In July 2016, Rep. Blackburn submitted a proposal to prevent the FCC from imposing new broadband consumer privacy rules. (The FCC voted to adopt the rules in October.) In October of 2013, Rep. Blackburn sent a letter to the FCC opposing the Lifeline program.

Some in the public interest community believe that Rep. Blackburn is likely to prioritize the interests of industry lobbyists ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans because she is one of the House of Representatives’ largest recipients of campaign contributions from phone and cable companies. She has received more than $350,000 in campaign contributions from phone and cable companies and trade groups, including AT&T ($75,750), Verizon ($72,650), NCTA-The Internet & Television Association ($66,000), Comcast ($49,500) and CenturyLink ($30,100), according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The film, television and recording industries -- including the National Association of Broadcasters ($31,250) and News Corp/21st Century Fox ($23,900) -- have contributed $374,100 to Blackburn’s congressional campaigns.

Senior Director of Strategy at Free Press Action Fund Tim Karr said, “While DC’s top lobbyists are likely rejoicing over Blackburn’s selection to head the subcommittee, everyday internet users—and those seeking more affordable internet access—have a lot to fear from this swamp dweller.”

“With Blackburn, the myth of Sisyphus comes to mind,” said Christopher Mitchell, Director for Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “It feels like every time you get used to the challenges we have ahead of us, it gets harder. She’ll do what AT&T and Comcast want, and I’m guessing it’ll be a disaster, and then she’ll have to own it.”

Harold Feld, senior vice president with Public Knowledge, said that with Rep. Blackburn now Chair of the Communications Subcommittee, “We can expect lots of action on the Hill side on everything from FCC process reform to a Telecom Act re-write.”

Rounding out the roster for the subcommittee, as announced by Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR): Vice Chairman Leonard Lance (NJ), John Shimkus (IL), Steve Scalise (LA), Bob Latta (OH), Brett Guthrie (KY), Pete Olson (TX), Adam Kinzinger (IL), Gus Bilirakis (FL), Bill Johnson (OH), Billy Long (MO), Bill Flores (TX), Susan Brooks (IN), Chris Collins (NY), Kevin Cramer (ND), Mimi Walters (CA), Ryan Costello (PA) and Greg Walden (OR) - (Ex Officio).

Changing of the Guard for Democrats
Previous Ranking Member Anna Eshoo (D-CA) said this week, “Senior members like myself must consider the best interest of our Party and our need to develop leaders for the future. In other words, it’s time to walk my talk. I therefore am not seeking to be reelected Ranking Member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee.” The new Ranking Member of the House Communications subcommittee will be Rep Mike Doyle (D-PA). Rep. Eshoo will retain her seat on the subcommittee, and also sit on the Health Subcommittee.

Ranking Member Doyle said:

I want to thank my dear friend and colleague Anna Eshoo for her service as Ranking Member for the last six years – and for her strong support for my serving as Ranking Member in the 115th Congress. Anna has an outstanding record of leadership on tech policy since she came to Congress, and her leadership on this subcommittee has advanced important policies such as net neutrality, unlicensed spectrum, modernized 911 services, and greater competition for devices and services. Anna and I have worked together to advance these issues with other members of the subcommittee. I intend to continue the good work that Anna has been doing as the Ranking Member and to defend the gains that we have made.

We face serious challenges in the 115th Congress. Republicans are already talking about rolling back the Open Internet Order and enacting policies that will hurt innovators and consumers. I believe such an approach will also slow job creation and economic growth. We will work hard to make sure that the interests of consumers and innovators are represented – and defended – at both the subcommittee and full committee levels.

That being said, I believe that there are many goals that we share with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Expanded broadband deployment, increased access to broadband, higher speeds – both on wired and wireless services – and a modern and robust public safety communications system are principles that we all agree on. My hope is that we can we come together on a bipartisan agenda that advances the interests of all Americans.

Politico interviewed Rep Doyle better understanding of where he stands on important policy areas and what his plans are for the position:

  • On net neutrality: "I'm a big supporter of the Open Internet rule that Chairman Wheeler [got passed] - I supported that all the way. I think there is going to be a move on the other side to dial that back - whether they try to do it in a statute or through the new FCC commissioner. ... I think one of our jobs is to demystify the terminology and make sure people understand what it is they're trying to do and what we're trying to do and hopefully let the public weigh in on that."
  • On special access: "I will continue to fight for special access; that's been about a 10-year battle for me and I actually thought we were going to get it done, and it just fell short at the end. I'm anxious to see who the new FCC commissioner is and how he/she feels about that."
  • On former FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel: "I don't know whether Commissioner Rosenworcel is coming back or not. ... We haven't heard any names coming out of the [Trump] transition team on FCC."
  • On preserving existing policies: "We're going to defend the things we fought so hard for; they're not just gonna roll them back with us sitting there."
  • On bipartisan collaboration: "I'm going to get to know [subcommittee Chairwoman Marsha Blackburn] better, and I want to work with her. The committee has a history of being bipartisan, and I want to continue in that tradition."

Chairman Blackburn welcomed Doyle's selection and gave Politico a preview of the telecom subcommittee's next steps. "I think you can expect us to do some clean-up work first and look at some reauthorizations and then go full-steam ahead," she said, shying away from specifics but adding that new Chairman Greg Walden "will lay out the agenda at the appropriate time." When asked what he expected the telecom subcommittee's focus to be, Chairman Walden replied that he would unveil a list of priorities "eventually."

Rounding out roster for the subcommittee, as announced by Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ): Peter Welch (VT), Yvette Clarke (NY), David Loebsack (IA), Raul Ruiz (CA), Debbie Dingell (MI), Bobby Rush (IL), Anna Eshoo (CA), Eliot Engel (NY), G.K. Butterfield (NC), Doris Matsui (CA), Jerry McNerney (CA) and Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ) – Ex Officio.

Senate Communications Subcommittee
Sen John Thune (R-SD) will remain Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and Sen Bill Nelson (D-FL) will continue as Ranking Member. The Communications Subcommittee, which has not been very active in recent years, will be comprised of: Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS), *Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Johnson (R-WI), *Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Cory Gardner (R-CO), *Todd Young (R-IN), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Dean Heller (R-NV), and *Jim Inhofe (R-OK). (*New to the committee)

Of note, Sen Marco Rubio (R-FL), who was instrumental in pushing for bills freeing up more unlicensed spectrum, is moving to the Appropriations Committee.

We are awaiting word about the roster for the Democrats on the subcommittee.

Federal Communications Commission Appointments
The makeup of the FCC in 2017 is uncertain, though a clearer picture is starting to form. Lawyers at Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth offered a bit of a primer recently, pointing out that, as an independent agency, the FCC is overseen by Congress (not the President), and the five commissioners are appointed for fixed but staggered five-year terms. The President appoints all of the commissioners but he/she can only appoint three from the same party. The other two must be from another party or no party at all. The President is also given the authority to select who will be the chair of the FCC. All appointments must be approved by the Senate. The FCC requires a minimum of three (a quorum) to function.

On January 4, in a surprise move, President Barack Obama renominated former-FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel for a new term. The 114th Congress failed to vote on her nomination due to a larger political fight over nominations between the Republican and Democratic Senate leaders. It is likely that Republican lawmakers will be reluctant to work out a deal on Rosenworcel with President-elect Trump’s inauguration just around the corner. Commerce Committee Chairman Thune signaled he would be open to confirming Rosenworcel, but also said President-elect Trump should get to nominate who he wants to serve on the FCC.

President-elect Trump will get to fill two seats at least: that of exiting FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (he's leaving the FCC this month)—either with a new chairman if he goes outside the agency or a new commissioner if he taps one of the current Republicans to be chairman—and a Democrat for Rosenworcel's seat.

John Eggerton noted that one theory has been that Rosenworcel could be part of a package deal to smooth the way with Democrats for some of Trump's more controversial administration picks, though how much smoothing can be done given the Democratic pushback on some of those nominees remains to be seen.

A Run-down of Current FCC Terms
Commissioner Mignon Clyburnis serving a second five-year term on the FCC which will officially expire on June 30, 2017. However, there’s a grace period, called a “holdover,” after an FCC commissioner’s term expires, which ends when a replacement is confirmed, or at the end of the congressional session in the year following expiration of their term, whichever comes first. The holdover period for Commissioner Clyburn would end December 2018 if she is not renominated or reconfirmed for a third term.

Commissioner Ajit Pai is the senior Republican on the FCC. He was nominated by President Obama and his term expired on June 30, 2016; his holdover ends December 2017. He could be named Acting Chairman of the FCC by President Trump on January 20 and assume that role immediately without the need for Senate confirmation.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, also a Republican, is the newest commissioner. He was also nominated by President Obama, in 2013. His term expires December 2019 and his holdover period ends in December 2020.

A new FCC chairman is unlikely to be nominated and confirmed until late spring or early summer. One rumor from early December 2016 was that Brandt Hershman, a longtime Indiana state senator and former ally of Vice President-elect Mike Pence, could be in line for an appointment to the FCC, possibly as the next chairman. We’ve also heard Adam Wek, a Thune staffer, could be the next chair.

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Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
coffee iconPolicy Review of Mobile Broadband Operators’ Sponsored Data Offerings for Zero-Rated Content and Services (FCC)
coffee iconTrump Keeps Us All Guessing On Telecom. (Harold Feld blog)
coffee iconA simple path forward for FCC transparency (Blair Levin, Larry Downes)
coffee iconA New Path Forward For Net Neutrality (Hal Singer, Forbes)
coffee iconWilliam Benton: The Millionaire Who Took on McCarthy (The Daily Beast)
coffee iconThe tech to-do list for the new Congress (Politico)
coffee iconStrategies and Recommendations for Promoting Digital Inclusion (FCC)

Events Calendar for January 16-20, 2017
Jan 18 -- Social Media Jihad 2.0: Inside ISIS’ Global Recruitment and Incitement Campaign, New America
Jan 20 -- 58th Presidential Inauguration

ICYMI From Benton
benton logoPartnerships, Sharing, and Community Anchor Institution Broadband, Joanne Hovis
benton logoStingray 101: How Law Enforcement Agencies And, Perhaps, Anyone Else, Can And Do Intercept Cell Phone Calls, Andrew Schwartzman

By Robbie McBeath.