FCC Chairman Ajit Pai cleared a procedural hurdle on Thursday on his way to securing another term, after a rare floor debate over an agency confirmation.
Democrats used the opportunity to criticize Pai over a proposal to roll back the foundation of net neutrality rules, and moves to ease media ownership rules. The latter FCC actions helped clear the way for Sinclair Broadcast Group to reach a deal to acquire Tribune’s stations, creating a broadcasting giant with a near-national reach.
President Donald Trump appointed Pai chairman of the FCC in January, and nominated him to another five-year term in March.
Pai’s confirmation is not in doubt, but the nomination process is usually a formality when it comes to FCC slots. The Senate voted 55-41 to end the debate on his renomination, and a final vote is expected by early next week.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said that Pai’s actions during his tenure as chairman have been “paving the way for a massive consolidation among radio and TV broadcast stations.”
He also cited “the elephant in the room,” or a proposal that would remove the regulatory underpinnings of net neutrality. A vote is expected by the end of the year.
“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 said.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said that Pai was a “breath of fresh air” after the tenure of his predecessor, Tom Wheeler, who he complained had pursued policies with a much greater than normal partisan split at the agency.
“Chairman Pai has already made much needed reform to improve much needed processes at the FCC, and to empower his fellow commissioners,” Thune said.
A number of public interest groups, including Free Press and Demand Progress, have waged campaigns urging senators to vote against Pai’s confirmation.
Six Democrats — Claire McCaskill, Tom Carper, Chris Coons, Joe Manchin, Gary Peters, and Jon Tester — joined with Republicans in voting to end the debate.
Far and away the most contentious issue is over net neutrality. The FCC in 2015 reclassified Internet service as a common carrier, akin to the status given to a utility. Fiercely opposed by major Internet providers, the regulatory maneuver allowed the FCC to impose robust rules that ban blocking and throttling of content, or selling “lanes” of traffic for speedier access to the consumer.
Pai has been a critic of the move, and put a proposal up for public comment that would rollback the regulatory framework. Net neutrality advocates say that would severely weaken the rules, and many see the issue headed to the courts.
Pai also moved early in his tenure to restore a rule called the UHF discount, in which regulators count the reach of UHF stations of half that of a VHF station. That allows media companies amass more stations and still come within media ownership caps, now set at a reach of 39% of the country. Without the UHF discount, the combined Sinclair-Tribune stations would reach about 72% of the country.