The Senate voted along party lines to confirm the appointment of President Trump’s nominee to the FCC, Nathan Simington — who was opposed by Democrats. Simington’s confirmation, critics said, could stall the incoming Biden administration’s agenda, including the move to reinstate net neutrality rules.
Trump nominated Simington, who was previously a senior adviser at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to replace Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who is exiting the FCC at the end of 2020. That’s because Trump declined to nominate O’Rielly for another term after the commissioner expressed doubt about the legality of the president’s order directing the FCC to explore how to interpret Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to regulate social-media companies. That provision of the law currently provides a legal-liability shield for internet platforms that lets them moderate user-posted content.
Simington, whom critics point out has very little experience in the field of communications policy, was picked by Trump after Simington drafted the White House’s executive order on Section 230 to bar social-media companies from “engage in censoring or any political conduct.” The legality of such an action is disputed, but Trump and his allies are hoping to give the agency regulatory power over Facebook, Twitter and other internet companies.
Simington’s appointment gives the FCC a 2-2 split between the parties, given that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he will leave the commission down on Jan. 20 once president-elect Biden takes office.
At that point, if the Senate remains controlled by Republicans in the new year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could move to block a Biden appointee to the FCC (preventing the Democrats from securing a majority) in order to stymie the incoming White House.
Pai has supported Trump’s campaign to reform Section 230. Less than a month before the election, Pai opened a rulemaking proceeding on Section 230 in accordance with Trump’s order — drawing condemnations for what critics said pushes the FCC beyond the scope of its authority. Trump, clearly angry about Twitter and Facebook fact-checking his posts, has continued to rail against Section 230, most recently threatening to veto a defense-spending bill unless Congress moved to repeal Section 230.
Just before the vote Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) tweeted that Simington was “unqualified” and that “his confirmation would undercut #NetNeutrality & our work on the #DigitalDivide. The Senate must listen to the American people & #StopSimington.”
Pai, in a statement, congratulated Simington and noted that the new FCC commissioner hails from a rural community, “and his confirmation ensures that this important perspective will continue to be represented on the Commission for years to come as the FCC continues its work on bridging the digital divide.”
Consumer-advocacy group Free Press decried Simington’s appointment, saying in a statement that “The defeated president has prioritized the effort to undermine social-media platforms’ ability to fact check his false posts about the election outcome.”
“Simington’s confirmation is a cynical Republican ploy to deadlock the Biden FCC,” Free Press Action VP of policy and general counsel Matt Wood said in a statement. “The whole point is to prevent a duly elected new administration and its appointees from getting to work. That’s unacceptable, considering everything that a Biden FCC must do to promote broadband equity, increase media diversity and ensure people can get and stay connected during this pandemic.”