As Obama Nominates Wheeler for FCC, Eyes Turn to the Confirmation Process

Tom Wheeler
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When President Obama officially nominated Tom Wheeler to be the next FCC chairman today, he said that he wanted to “thank the Senate now for what I am sure will be a speedy confirmation process.”

The president’s comment at a White House ceremony was a quip, a testament to the now unpredictable nature of a process that at times felt like a rubber stamp.

With praise for Wheeler coming from industry, former colleagues, some public interest advocates and the current FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, there is as of now little doubt that he will be confirmed, particularly if his nomination is paired with an as-yet-nominated Republican for the FCC other vacancy.

But Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which will conduct the confirmation hearing, pushed for his former aide Jessica Rosenworcel, now an FCC commission, to get the spot. Rockefeller was expected to issue a statement today.

Wheeler undoubtedly will be pressed on everything from the FCC’s implementation to voluntary incentive auctions, to net neutrality, to broadcast indecency. Genachowski has had little appetite to tackle objectionable content on the airwaves, but left for his successor a proposal to deal only with “egregious cases,” something that is sure to be broached at confirmation hearings among lawmakers who still see a role for the agency in policing the airwaves.

Wheeler also has an entire career behind him, something that Obama cited as an asset. Calling him the “Jim Brown of telecom,” Obama said, “If anybody is wondering about Tom’s qualifications, Tom is the only member of both the cable television and wireless industry hall of fame.”

Wheeler led the trade associations representing the cable and wireless industries, something that others don’t see as an asset, but perhaps a liability. Like Genachowski, a law school classmate of Obama’s, Wheeler knows the president well, having been a campaign bundler in the most recent election cycles. More disconcerting for some orgs, however, is that his career doesn’t scream out neutral observer of the dramatic changes in the industry. Sascha Meinrath, New America Foundation vice president and director of New America’s Open Technology Institute, said, “I am skeptical that the former chief lobbyist of the wireless and cable industries will be capable of holding his former clients accountable for their ongoing shortcomings.”

Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East, said that although the org is “always skeptical that people can become effective watchdogs over industries they once represented, we are hopeful and note that Mr. Wheeler appears to have a detailed grasp of the technologies that are transforming communications.”

At Wednesday’s White House press briefing, spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether Wheeler’s pick conflicted with Obama’s 2008 campaign, in the candidate criticized the revolving door of lobbyists who had tenures in top government positions. Carney noted that Wheeler had not been a lobbyist for the wireless industry for a decade, and for the cable business since the 1980s. He added that those industries were much smaller then. “He represented smaller companies that thrived on innovation and competition,” Carney said.

Republicans expressed concerns that Wheeler would have too heavy a regulatory touch. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon), technology subcommittee chairman, said that they “are concerned by Mr. Wheeler’s views on merger conditions that can be misued to affect whole industries, not just those seeking merger approval.” They were referring to one of Wheeler’s blog posts that appeared to support the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile, because it would enable the FCC to impose conditions on the transaction and gain greater oversight over the wireless industry.

Those who have known Wheeler, a longtime D.C. insider, offered words of praise. Among them were Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and former Sen. Chris Dodd, now chairman of the MPAA. “Tom has demonstrated strong leadership skills at a time of major change in the telecommunications, cable and wireless industries.”

On Wednesday, there also was attention paid to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who in mid-May, when Genachowski departs, will become acting chair. She will be the first woman to fill the post, the first in the agency’s nearly 80 years. Orgs like the Women’s Media Center expressed disappointment that a woman wasn’t nominated for a permanent post, but Clyburn said in a statement that she was “deeply humbled” for the opportunity and thanked Obama “for this incredible and historic honor.”

Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, called Clyburn “a trailblazer and role model for millions of women, and her commitment to serving the public interest is unquestioned.”