Senate Votes to Confirm Ajit Pai for New FCC Term Despite Democrats’ Objections

Ajit Pai Free Speech

The Senate voted to confirm Ajit Pai to another five-year term to the FCC, after Democrats used the debate over his nomination to blast his actions on issues like media consolidation, net neutrality, and President Donald Trump.

The Senate voted 52-41 to confirm Pai. His term was due to expire at the end of the year.

“I am deeply grateful to the U.S. Senate for confirming my nomination to serve a second term at the FCC and to President Trump for submitting that nomination to the Senate,” Pai said. “Since January, the Commission has focused on bridging the digital divide, promoting innovation, protecting consumers and public safety, and making the FCC more open and transparent. With today’s vote, I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues to advance these critical priorities in the time to come.”

Democrats used a rare floor vote on an FCC nomination to criticize his tenure at the FCC. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) cited Pai’s proposal to roll back the foundation of the current net neutrality rules.

That regulatory framework, known as “Title II,” meant that internet service providers were reclassified as a common carrier, akin to a utility. When it was still under Democrats’ control in 2015, the FCC voted for reclassification, allowing the agency to impose rules prohibiting ISPs from blocking or throttling traffic, or from selling speedier access to the consumer.

Markey noted that more than 22 million have filed comments on Pai’s proposal to eliminate Title II, and he claimed that was a signal that the public wants net neutrality to remain in place.

“And yet Ajit Pai will not listen,” Markey said.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said that Pai has largely gone along with the Republican party line of deregulation and that “at a certain point he has to demonstrate his independence.” He pointed to Pai’s move last spring to restore an FCC rule that allows companies to amass more TV stations. But the move to reinstate the so-called “UHF discount,” Schatz said, “appears to be for the benefit of one company, the Sinclair Broadcast Group.”

After the rule was reinstated, Sinclair announced its plans to merge with Tribune Media, in a transaction that would give Sinclair control of more than 200 stations nationwide, expanding the Baltimore-based station owner’s presence to the nation’s largest TV markets for the first time.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) cited Pai’s response to one of Trump’s attacks on the news media, when he called a number of mainstream outlets the “enemy of the American people.” Pai refused to criticize Trump for the remark in a Senate hearing, and later said that Trump was referring to purveyors of “fake news.” But Udall said that Pai’s response was insufficient.

A number of public interest groups waged social media campaigns to urge lawmakers to vote against Pai’s nomination, even tying it to the ongoing debate over net neutrality. But some conservative groups also pushed for his reconfirmation.

Christine Harbin of Americans for Prosperity said that “most notable is his progress in scaling back the federal government’s role in regulating the Internet. Chairman Pai’s policy vision will improve the lives of Americans across the country through improving access to reliable high-speed Internet and encouraging innovation and investment.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said that Pai has “hit the reset button” on net neutrality, and that the FCC was due to “rebalance” its approach to internet regulation.

Four Democrats voted with Republicans in favor of Pai: Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.); Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana); Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.); and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.).

Most votes to reconfirm FCC nominees are typically formalities, but Democrats forced a rare floor vote on his nomination, giving them time for debate.

Pai was confirmed to the FCC in 2012, and Trump appointed him chairman in January.