The Wait for a Full FCC

Future FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler had his first sit-down with the United States Senate last week. The Benton Foundation has assembled an excellent compendium of coverage from the hearing, focused especially on Wheeler’s qualifications and his potential agenda for the agency.
For decades, Wheeler was the chief lobbyist for the wireless phone and cable industries. He also raised more than a million dollars for President Barack Obama’s elections in 2008 and 2012. Currently, Wheeler’s a venture capitalist.
This is a far cry from Obama’s election promise in 2007 that he would clean up the revolving door between government agencies and special interests. At his Senate hearing, Wheeler deflected this criticism by noting that in his days as a lobbyist, "I was an advocate for specific points of view, and I hope I was a pretty good advocate. If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, my client will be the American public, and I hope I can be as effective an advocate for them as humanly possible.”
If only politics worked that way; can a leopard really change its spots?
Once confirmed as the new Chair, a Wheeler FCC is likely to continue the trend of regulatory dismissiveness toward broadcasters more generally. Most of his top priorities involve expanding access to broadband and creating an interoperable, nationwide public safety communications network. Broadcasters are tangentially involved in the former because the FCC is currently designing the terms for an incentive auction that may see many TV broadcasters sell back their over-the-air channels, which would then be repurposed for wireless broadband services.
(Initially, broadcasters vowed to fight efforts to repurpose DTV spectrum; now, a coalition of more than 70 stations is negotiating behind the scenes with the FCC to get the most favorable terms possible for the public airwaves they claim as their own. The coalition is led by Disney’s former D.C. strategist.)
Wheeler will fill one of two open seats on the Commission; the other will be a Republican nominee. The selection-process seems to be moving more slowly on this front: although no official short-list exists for the open seat, the only names that have been thrown around so far are staffers to key GOP members of Congress.
In sum, the process to bring the FCC back to its full five-member condition is not casting its search any further than the Beltway, and may drag on for months. Once it’s concluded, the "change" will be imperceptible: the agency will continue on its dastardly neoliberal trajectory for the foreseeable future, making further mockery of the notion of regulating in the "public interest, convenience, and necessity."
In the interim, Mignon Clyburn sits at the helm of the FCC – the first woman ever to do so. The conventional wisdom is that acting FCC Chairpeople don’t rock the boat. But the conventional wisdom sucks, and Clyburn could make even more telecom policy history if she chose to.
The FCC Chair has an impressive amount of power: they set the agency’s policy agenda, have significant ability to commission research inquiries and other exploratory projects, and can wield significant discretionary authority over agency operations more generally. Clyburn has diverse policy interests, such as reigning in the prison phone oligopoly and exploring the expansion of the FM dial, under which substantive progress might be made using the Chair’s prerogative alone. What good is sitting in the driver’s seat without going somewhere?