One day after President Donald Trump re-nominated FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to a second term, Pai and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael O’Rielly sat before the Senate Commerce Committee in a broad oversight hearing. The committee’s chairman, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), opened the hearing with praise for the commission’s new leadership. He was particularly pleased that his previous calls for improvements in transparency and fairness seemed to have been heeded. He pointed to recent process reforms and said, “Counter to the trend of Chairman Pai’s recent predecessors, who often sought to amass as much power in the chairman’s office as they could, these simple steps instead empower the public and the other commissioners.”
The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), opened with a different tone. He asserted that during the Obama Administration, the commission “had the American consumer’s back.” In addition to a series of specific policy disagreements he had with Pai, Nelson said, “Ultimately, for this senator, the success or failure of the commission rests not on the fulfillment of special interest wish lists, but on how those who are least able to protect themselves have been treated and whether First Amendment rights, including those of journalists, are vigorously protected.”
This line of press freedom questioning was repeated more than once by other Democrats on the committee, who were particularly concerned with President Trump’s battles with certain mainstream media outlets. However, Chairman Pai would not be baited into a larger political debate and instead reaffirmed his longtime commitment to First Amendment freedoms and his desire to focus on the work of the independent agency he has been tapped to lead. Pai said, “I believe that every American enjoys the First Amendment protections guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Among the many other issues that came up during the hearing were the upcoming re-pack of broadcast stations after the spectrum auction, Next Gen TV proposals, media ownership rules, public safety issues, and internet privacy. In addition, the net neutrality debate remained high on the minds of many. Thune, who is hoping to reach bipartisan legislative agreement on the subject, said, “Since we don’t yet have agreement on that front, despite good will on both sides, there’s no reason for the FCC to hold off doing what is necessary to rebalance the FCC’s regulatory posture under current statutes.” For his part, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a champion for internet freedom, called the net neutrality order an “illegal power grab” and “dangerous.” He called on the commission to “rescind it in its entirety.”
This full hearing may be viewed in its entirety via C-SPAN here.
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations
Published: March 10, 2017