The Trump Midterm: Looking at the 116th Congress

Benton Foundation

Friday, November 9, 2018

Weekly Digest

The Trump Midterm: Looking at the 116th Congress


 You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of November 5-9, 2018

Robbie McBeath

Tuesday, November 6 was Election Day in the United States. At the national level, Republicans kept control of the U.S. Senate, while Democrats won enough seats to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

At Headlines, we keep a close eye on two key Congressional committees because of their jurisdiction over many telecommunications issues and oversight of the Federal Communications Commission: 1) the Senate Commerce Committee and 2) the House Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

What did we learn about the new Congress? Below we take a look at who’s leaving these key committees and what impact that will have on telecommunications and media policy in 2019. 

A Bluer Senate Commerce Committee?

Four of the 14 Republican members of the Senate Commerce Committee were up for reelection. Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Deb Fischer (R-NE), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) all won re-election. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) lost to Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), a former computer programmer whose campaign drew substantial support from Silicon Valley. 

Republican members of the Commerce in the 115th Congress are:

  • John Thune (SD) - Chairman 
  • Roger Wicker (MS)
  • Roy Blunt (MO) 
  • Ted Cruz (TX)
  • Deb Fischer (NE)
  • Jerry Moran (KS) 
  • Dan Sullivan (AK)
  • Dean Heller (NV) 
  • Jim Inhofe (OK)
  • Mike Lee (UT)
  • Ron Johnson (WI)
  • Shelley Moore Capito (WV)
  • Cory Gardner (CO)
  • Todd Young (IN)

Five of the 13 Democratic members of the committee were up for reelection. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Jon Tester (D-MT) all secured reelection. Sen. Bill Nelson (FL) also faced reelection, but that race has not yet been decided. With well over 8 million votes cast in Florida, Nelson trails challenger Gov. Rick Scot (R-FL) by about 15,000 votes. That race will apparently be decided by a recount. 

Democratic members of the Commerce in the 115th Congress are:

  • Bill Nelson (FL) - Ranking Member 
  • Maria Cantwell (WA)
  • Amy Klobuchar (MN)
  • Richard Blumenthal (CT)
  • Brian Schatz (HI)
  • Ed Markey (MA)
  • Tom Udall (NM)
  • Gary Peters (MI)
  • Tammy Baldwin (WI)
  • Tammy Duckworth (IL)
  • Maggie Hassan (NH)
  • Catherine Cortez Masto (NV)
  • Joe Tester (MT)

With three Senate races still undecided, we know, at least, that Republicans will not lose any seats on the Commerce Committee. However, if Democrats lose any of the uncalled Senate races, they will lose a seat(s) on the committee. 

Changes in Leadership Coming -- for Both Sides of the Aisle in Senate?

The Senate Commerce Committee has been led by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) for the past six years. Although Thune is returning for the 116th Congress, Senate rules on term limits mean that he will not be able to hold on to the committee gavel. He also serves a leadership position for his party; he’s been chairman of the Senate Republican Conference for six years as well. With Assistant Majority Leader John Cornyn (R-TX) also term-limited on his leadership position, Sen. Thune may move up to that spot.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS)

On the committee side, Thune is likely to pass the gavel on to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) who won reelection this week. In his victory speech, Sen. Wicker announced he was likely in line for a leadership position on the Commerce Committee.

"If I am chairman of the Commerce Committee, we're going to work on a wide range of issues there to make Mississippi better and make America stronger," he said. Wicker has focused on rural broadband and, in recent years, hammered the FCC for inaccurate broadband mapping data.

We’ve also seen early reports that Thune is interested in taking Wicker’s spot as chairman of the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet. 

As for the Democratic leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee, there will be some drama. Current Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) is embattled in a manual recount for his reelection bid. If he prevails, he’s likely to remain Ranking Member. If he loses, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) may be next in line. Other candidates include Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). Sen. Brian Schatz is the Communications Subcommittee Ranking Member and is likely to retain that spot. 

House Communications Subcommittee

Obviously, all of the members of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee faced reelection this year. Every current Democratic Representative won reelection. 

Subcommittee Vice Chairman Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) was the only GOP member who lost his seat in the November election, but there were additional shakeups. Rep. Ryan Costello (D-PA) retired. A Democrat, Chrissy Houlahan, will be taking his House seat. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) is leaving the House for the Senate, as he defeated incumbent-Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). Subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) is also headed to the Senate after she defeated former-Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen to succeed Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who is retiring.

A New Sheriff is a-Comin’ to Town

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA)

With the House flipping, the Communications Subcommittee will be led by the current Ranking Member, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA). Doyle said his agenda includes protecting net neutrality, investing in broadband infrastructure, and "providing Americans with the privacy and data security protections."

The larger House Commerce Committee will be likely chaired by current Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), who on Wednesday formally requested the chairmanship. In the same announcement, Pallone outlined his policy agenda, which includes investing in broadband infrastructure, protecting net neutrality, and providing meaningful privacy and data security protections.

The GOP side is more of a mystery, as both the Chair and Vice Chair will not be in the House for the next Congress. As mentioned, Chairman Blackburn, one of Congress’ most outspoken opponents of net neutrality and privacy rules, is heading to the Senate. And Vice Chairman Lance, an advocate for freeing up more government-held spectrum for commercial use, lost a close race to Tom Malinowski. 

Frontrunners for leadership spots include Reps. Bob  Latta (R-OH), John Shimkus (R-IL), and Steve Scalise (R-LA). Latta’s priorities include rural telecommunications and the internet of things (IoT); Shimkus is on the Congressional NextGen 9-1-1 Caucus.

Key Staffers

With an incoming Democratic majority in the House and a GOP majority in the Senate, there will be a shake-up in the players on telecommunications policy including shifts for a slew of tech-savvy staffers steering lawmakers behind the scenes on high-profile policy debates. Here's a rundown of some of the key congressional aides:

Crystal Tully, telecommunications policy director for Senate Commerce Committee Republicans, formerly lobbied for the Competitive Carriers Association She helped take the lead on telecommunications policy for the panel starting in fall 2017, giving her a front-row seat to debates on 5G wireless deployment and net neutrality under Chairman Thune. Her resume also includes a stint working for Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS). 

Sen. Wicker has telecommunications staff of his own, of course. Olivia Trusty is his telecommunications legislative staffer. She’s also a former aide to Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) and staffer for the House's Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee. She’s helped lead Wicker's telecom portfolio as the chair of the Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet Subcommittee. If Wicker takes the gavel of the full committee, as is widely anticipated, watch for Trusty to potentially come along and help shape his agenda.

Alex Hoehn-Saric, chief telecom counsel to House Commerce Democrats joined the committee in 2018, with experience working in several different parts of the government including the Federal Communications Commission, Commerce Department, and Senate. Most recently, he worked in Charter Communications' government affairs office. Expect him to aid the committee's work on broadband infrastructure, public safety, net neutrality, and privacy.

Philip Murphy, legislative director for Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) since 2013, oversees numerous policy areas, including telecommunications and science and technology. Prior to joining Doyle's office, Murphy was a committee staffer for six years.

Legislation? Maybe Wait On It

What do people want from the new Congress? Better protections for consumer data and net neutrality appear to be popular and bipartisan priorities. A Morning Consult/Politico poll found, for example, that a 40 percent plurality of respondents, including 43 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of Republicans, said data security is a top priority.

But will any telecommunications or tech legislation be passed in the next two years? Better first to figure out President Donald Trump’s relationship with Congress. 

Harold Feld contends:

If Trump goes all confrontational, then nothing gets done in Congress. Period. It doesn’t matter how much Dems try to go all bipartisan... If Trump declares eternal war on Democrats, we can pretty much forget about getting anything done between now and 2021. [On the other hand], if Trump decides he wants to set himself up as ‘solving gridlock’ for his reelection campaign, then we could see some efforts to try to move things.

Politico also predicts unpredictability:

A Democratic House and Republican Senate have a bipartisan shot at legislating on tech issues, but it’s a limited one. The two chambers show signs that they could align around two issues: imposing privacy rules on the country’s tech giants and directing new funds to improve internet service in rural parts of the country. But with a tight window for legislating and the 2020 presidential election looming, the political climate doesn't favor robust cooperation, making any breakthroughs challenging.

Oversight is Coming

Ranking Member Pallone has accused Republicans of neglecting to hold enough oversight hearings on the FCC and the industries it oversees. He said it’s “important that the committee get back to conducting real oversight of the FCC, and that means regular oversight hearings with all commissioners.”

Ranking Member Doyle agreed. “First of all, we want to see the FCC in front of us more, and then there’s a whole range of issues that obviously we’re going to be interested in discussing,” he said. 

You may recall that in June, Pallone and Doyle sent a letter to the committee's GOP leadership to demand more oversight hearings. [See: Nine Months Late, an FCC Oversight Hearing] And given how that last oversight hearing went, the Pai FCC can expect to face some intense scrutiny from the newly empowered Democrats. 

But that's not unusual. Using committee gavels to disrupt regulators of opposing parties is a common tactic. It gives opposition lawmakers the opportunity to highlight their issues of choice and antagonize the administration.

“The entire goal is to keep you from your doing work,” said Gigi Sohn, a Benton senior fellow and former adviser to Tom Wheeler, who served as FCC chairman during the Obama administration. “The Republicans did that so effectively against Wheeler,” she said. “Everybody and their mother took a shot at Tom Wheeler. And if Democrats are smart, they’ll do the same thing.”


Come January, we'll have a divided Congress. We don't yet know how this divide will play out -- much of it depends on the political strategy of President Trump. Will he fight against the new House Majority and block legislation? Or will he use his professed dealmaking skills to pass bipartisan bills? What we do know is the Democrats now control the House, and we can expect them to use this to bring tougher scrutiny of the Pai FCC. 

The Trump midterm is now behind us. We'll keep you informed with what lays ahead. And, as always, you can stay up to date with Headlines.  

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

November 2018 Events

Nov 13-15 -- FTC Hearing #7, Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century

Nov 14 -- The Law and Economics of Data, University of Colorado Law School

Nov 14 -- Broadband Connectivity is Transforming Healthcare, NTIA webinar

Nov 15 -- Is the Platform Economy Forcing Us to Reconsider Antitrust Enforcement?, Technology Policy Institute

Nov 15 -- Broadband Legislation in the Next Congress, SHLB Coalition webinar

Nov 19 -- Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment, FCC

Nov 30 -- Forum on AI and Machine Learning, FCC

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Foundation
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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By Robbie McBeath.