The White House’s selection of a senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney to run a division of the Commerce Department that shapes telecom policy has languished for four months and is not expected to see Senate action.
The nomination of Neil Patel is one of 189 pending in the Senate, most of which are not likely to be approved before Congress adjourns because Senate Majority Leader Reid is reluctant to act on them in a presidential election year, according to government and industry sources.
Reid has signaled that only critical vacancies would be filled because if his party regains the White House, it would be choosing fresh candidates.
A Reid spokesman denied the lawmaker is stalling, but White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said the Senate has confirmed 39 percent — 123 out of 312 — of the nominations before it this year.
Many sources said that Senate Commerce Chairman Daniel Inouye has no plans for a hearing on Patel, effectively blocking his confirmation. Patel serves as Cheney’s assistant for domestic and economic policy, although he reportedly had been on the short list of candidates in 2005 to succeed I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby as the vice president’s chief of staff.
The Bush administration tapped Patel on March 5 to head the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is playing a critical role in overseeing the nation’s transition to digital television signals in February.
He would replace Meredith Baker, acting administrator and the daughter-in-law of former Secretary of State James Baker, who took charge in November when her embattled predecessor stepped down amid criticism over his leadership.
“I don’t think he’s on anybody’s radar screen,” a Hill source said of Patel.
When asked about the status of the Patel nomination, a senior Senate Commerce Committee aide would only say: “The committee has a number of nominations pending, which shall be considered in due course. Mr. Patel is among them.”
White House and Hill sources provided CongressDaily with a list of 15 additional nominations – 12 Republicans and 3 Democrats – to various agencies awaiting consideration by the panel. Among them is the June 2007 reappointment of FCC regulator Deborah Taylor Tate to a second term. She will be forced to exit if not reconfirmed before the Senate leaves town.
Several congressional and telecom insiders questioned how Patel, with relatively little communications experience, got the nod — albeit for what many consider a thankless job — and at time when the acting administrator has received mostly positive reviews from Democrats and Republicans.
NTIA is overseeing a $1.5 billion coupon program designed to assist analog-dependent TV viewers. The next several months will be particularly risky because Congress would likely lower the boom if glitches strand millions of citizens without TV reception.
Patel has no broadcast experience, though he previously served as assistant general counsel at an Internet service provider. He advises Cheney on several issues, including telecom policy.
There has been speculation that Patel was angling for a title he could turn into a well-paying lobbying job, but that Senate Commerce Democrats have no incentive to facilitate the move. “They’re certainly not going to confirm a Dick Cheney clone so he can put a little star by his resume,” quipped a source.
“He views the NTIA position as another important opportunity for [public] service,” responded Lawrimore.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has applauded the Patel nomination, saying he has known Patel for seven years. Martin’s wife, Catherine, is a former Cheney aide.
“It is my understanding that they played no role in the selection process,” Lawrimore said about the Martins. Martin declined to comment.
Baker has vowed to stay on at NTIA until her replacement is confirmed, but without Senate action, she will remain at a post the White House wants to give to someone else.
This article appears in the July 12, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.