New FCC Chair Rapidly Dismantling His Predecessor’s Legacy

Trump pick Ajit Pai has been taking apart key Tom Wheeler achievements, “brick by brick.”

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Brendan Bordelon
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Brendan Bordelon
April 12, 2017, 8 p.m.

In a Trump administration so often hobbled by haphazard policymaking, Ajit Pai’s Federal Communications Commission looks comparatively like a well-oiled machine.

While many Trump-era agencies are just now sputtering to life, the new Republican FCC chairman has spent the last three months rolling back his predecessor’s policies at a breakneck pace. From big-ticket items like internet privacy to less well-known proceedings on business-data services and media ownership rules, Pai is taking the proverbial “weed whacker” to Obama-era regulations promulgated during former Chairman Tom Wheeler’s three-year stint at the FCC.

Wheeler’s longtime foes in the telecommunications industry are giddy. One broadband-industry official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, poked fun at a recent Politico birthday profile of the ex-chairman. “As former FCC chairman Wheeler is telling anyone who will listen that he’s enjoying drinking margaritas, current FCC chair Ajit Pai is dismantling Wheeler’s legacy, brick by brick,” the official told National Journal.

FCC observers believe the pace of the rollback is unprecedented, particularly for a commission that has historically valued consensus-building and plodding deliberations.

“It does seem pretty rapid, pretty thorough,” Brent Skorup, a researcher at the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center and a member of the FCC’s new Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, said of Pai’s moves so far. “My impression is it’s a pretty small team, and it’s amazing what they’ve been able to accomplish.”

“It is unusual, based on the transitions that I have seen in the past,” one longtime FCC official told National Journal. “This particular chairman seems to be more aggressive, just in terms of what he wants to accomplish, and more political in terms of the things he’s trying to accomplish, than chairmen have been in the past.”

A Pai spokesman did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

While increasing partisanship across the political spectrum likely plays a role in the shift, observers say Pai’s decade-long stint at the FCC—first as a staffer and then as a commissioner—enabled him to hit the ground running. And President Trump’s decision to nominate him as full chairman further empowered Pai, preventing the months of inaction that typify an acting chairman’s tenure.

The amount of FCC activity since Jan. 20 has been extraordinary. Even if one puts aside Pai’s push against Wheeler’s internet-privacy rules—which received a huge boost from a recent congressional resolution rescinding the regulations—in less than three months, the chairman has issued a nonstop flurry of impending orders, policy proposals, and reversals of Wheeler-era provisions.

On March 29 Pai announced his intention to pare back Wheeler’s 2016 plan to expand Lifeline—a federal internet-subsidies program administered by the FCC—saying he instead wants states to determine which companies are certified to participate.

Commissioners will vote next Thursday to deregulate the $45-billion-a-year business-data-services market, a direct repudiation of Wheeler’s plan last year to place price caps on parts of the industry. Pai scrapped Wheeler’s plan in the first week of his term, at the same time scuttling another Wheeler proposal on cable set-top boxes. The next week, he retracted a Wheeler-era investigation and report that was critical of the “free data” programs operated by AT&T, Verizon, and other telecom companies.

The FCC will also vote next Thursday to reinstate the UHF discount, which Wheeler discontinued last year as a way to increase limits on media ownership. And it will consider an order on infrastructure investment that several observers say is designed to roll back parts of the tech transition framework, adopted by Wheeler in 2016 as a way to protect consumers as telecom companies shift to new technologies.

“If you just look at the number of items that are on an FCC meeting, historically it’s been maybe three or four—if you’re really aggressive, you get maybe five or six,” said the FCC official. “Chairman Pai has consistently had six or seven items on each meeting.”

Skorup sees Pai’s rapid rollback of Wheeler’s legacy as a natural reaction to the former Democratic chairman’s own activist tenure. With the FCC abandoning its more traditional regulatory roles to focus on internet regulation and other uncharted waters, Skorup believes an active—and at times actively partisan—FCC could become the new normal.

Others say Pai’s success thus far is more a function of shrewd political maneuvering. “It looks like he’s using the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach,” said Josh Stager, policy counsel at the progressive Open Technology Institute. Stager said Pai often professes his commitment to the “broad principles” of programs like Lifeline or internet privacy while simultaneously moving forward piecemeal procedures designed to rein in those programs. That limits the ability of activists to gin up opposition, Stager said. “The key motivator of this approach to keep all this stuff as quiet as possible.”

But if the last-minute blowup over broadband privacy earlier this month is any indication, the lull in what Stager calls “netroots” activism may not last. Nicol Turner-Lee, a technology fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that, going forward, Pai will need to communicate the pro-consumer benefits of his actions before he takes them. That’s particularly true if he hopes to roll back Wheeler’s net-neutrality order, which is likely to spark a fierce backlash.

“If consumers who are going to be at the brunt of these activities don’t quite understand why the FCC is making these decisions—or they associate the FCC with the type of hasty decision-making that’s happening in Congress and the White House—it places Pai at a disadvantage,” Turner-Lee said.

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