FCC big cheese given Congressional roasting in reconfirmation bid

But Ajit Pai still expected to clear US Senate hurdle next week

For a man who repeatedly criticized his predecessor at the Federal Communications Commission for dragging the US watchdog in a bi-partisan direction, in his eight months as FCC chairman Ajit Pai has done more than anyone to infect it with Washington politics.

That unpleasant reality was drawn out in a Congressional hearing on Thursday when Pai's nomination for a further five-year term was met with repeated and aggressive complaints by Democratic lawmakers.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) criticized Pai for "paving the way for a massive consolidation among radio and TV broadcast stations" by allowing Sinclair Broadcast Group's bid to acquire Tribune Media to proceed. And slammed him for the "elephant in the room" – Pai's controversial plan to roll back net neutrality rules.

"The vast majority of the actions of Chairman Pai have served to eliminate competitive protections, threaten dangerous industry consolidation, make the internet less free and less open, and weaken critical consumer protections for those most vulnerable," Nelson complained.

That was polite compared to what Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has to say. "Mr Pai has a long track record of putting big cable before consumers, big corporations above small businesses and pay-to-play over the free and open internet," he stated.

"Mr Pai has betrayed the American consumer at every turn and has an agenda at the FCC that makes a mockery of the moniker: Independent Agency. He's on the side of big cable and big business, and hasn't done much of anything for the rest of us."

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Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined in the bashing. "I'm not going to vote for someone who is going to slow down and clog the Internet," she said. "As the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he has demonstrated a disdain to these important public interest principles that he's supposed to be upholding, and it shows a disregard for the innovators in America that are striving so much to build the economy of the future."

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) promised a "resounding no" on Pai. The FCC chair should see the internet as a "tool for science, art, entrepreneurs – not just corporate profits," he tweeted. Fellow New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted a similar message.

These pointed criticisms were joined by an op-ed from a key advisor to the former chair Tom Wheeler, Gig Sohn, who outright called for Pai to be fired.

"Pai's record means real danger for American consumers and the internet itself. If you believe communications networks should be fast, fair, open, and affordable, you need to ask your senator to vote against Pai's reconfirmation."

An online campaign urges internet users to contact their representatives and insist on getting rid of Pai: "Tell the Senate to stand up for what's right and fire FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. (He does a better job of representing Verizon's interests anyway)" – Pai worked for the general counsel's office at Verizon. He even got his own hashtag: #FirePai.

And the flipside

Of course, in the tedious black-and-white world of Washington, DC, the more critical one side is of someone, the more glowing in praise the other side must be. And so it was with Republican senators.

Senator John Thune (R-SD) announced that Pai was a "breath of fresh air" and just for bi-partisan's sake, embarked on a comparative criticism with former chair Tom Wheeler who was, of course, a Democrat.

"Chairman Pai has already made much-needed reform to improve much-needed processes at the FCC, and to empower his fellow commissioners," Thune continued.

Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) praised Pai for showing "a real commitment to closing the digital divide." Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) called him "an excellent candidate with a demonstrated history of service and leadership."

And so on.

Of course, this being the Senate, all of these words in strong support and fierce opposition amounted to nothing at all.

On Thursday, the Senate voted to cut off debate with a 55-41 cloture vote, and moved the nomination forward, with a final vote expected on Monday. Pai needs 50 votes to be confirmed, and he will get them because all Republicans will vote for him – because he's a Republican – and all Democrats will vote against him – because he's a Republican.

What will be lost in that mindless show of bipartisanship, however, will be any semblance of informed debate over the policies that Pai is pursuing, many of which are likely to prove very harmful to consumers.

Wasn't always like this

What is notable is that the FCC has traditionally managed to avoid this sort of zero-sum-game partisanship. Pai's own actions have only helped strengthen that divide and suck the independent agency into party politics.

Among Pai's many unnecessary actions were:

Not to forget the ludicrous effort to attach the hate-word "Obama" to everything, which resulted in Pai referring to a long-standing program to provide the country's poorest with access to telecommunications as "Obamaphone."

When Pai does get renominated next week, it will be one more barrier against petty politics crumbling – and with it will go the kind of independent, thoughtful policy-making that the FCC used to supply and which is needed more than ever in our rapidly changing digital world. ®

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