End of the Julius Genachowski era may come soon at the FCC

The Julius Genachowski era may be approaching an end at the Federal Communications Commission. 

FCC Chairman Genachowski is under consideration to replace Gary Locke as secretary of Commerce, according to tech-industry sources and prominent Democrats close to the White House. 

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His departure would end a turbulent period at the FCC capped by the agency’s historic approval of net-neutrality rules last December. The feat fulfilled an Obama campaign promise but ruffled feathers on both sides of the aisle, in part because Genachowski took a moderate approach to designing the new rules that won his proposals industry support. 

Genachowski, a close friend of President Obama’s since law school who campaigned for him in 2008, came under heavy criticism from groups on the left and the right even before the new rules, which aim to rein in the way broadband providers can treat Internet traffic, were approved. 

Those rules are now being challenged in the courts and on Capitol Hill, where some Republicans have vilified the FCC chairman. The challenges mean the debate over the FCC’s rules are likely to live well beyond the current chairman’s tenure. 

Tech-industry sources said Genachowski is among a list of names the White House has floated internally for the Commerce job, along with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, other government officials and top business executives. 

Even if Genachowski doesn’t take the Commerce job, both he and the White House have reasons for his leaving his FCC post in the near future. 

The White House would like to see a more decision-oriented FCC chairman who manages to incubate industry skirmishes at the agency rather than allowing them to seep over to Pennsylvania Avenue, sources said. 

Genachowski, for his part, is widely seen as ready to leave the FCC after a grueling tenure characterized by near-constant acrimony and a few trips to Capitol Hill to take fire from House Republicans. Genachowski has tangled with Senate Democrats as well. 

Becoming Commerce secretary would allow Genachowski to leave on a positive note, and the chairman is seen as having business connections that could be a benefit at Commerce. 

“He’s not coming late to the party on spending time with CEOs and the private sector,” said a prominent Democrat familiar with White House deliberations. “He’s been doing that for two years. What people on the far left gave him grief for is actually an asset to being Commerce secretary.”

Industry sources said the ceremonial duties of the Commerce secretary position, which is heavy on promotion for the president’s agenda, might better suit Genachowski’s skill set. His focus on unleashing innovation syncs with the White House’s strong interest this year in promoting the technology industry, these sources noted.

Others questioned, however, why Obama would want to nominate someone for the Cabinet who has become a polarizing figure on the right. It’s unclear how difficult a confirmation battle Genachowski would face in the Senate, but it’s certain he’d face tough questions on his FCC tenure. 

Yet it is also possible that because Genachowski has become controversial on Capitol Hill, his departure could help the agency move past net neutrality to accomplish other priorities, such as freeing up airwaves for mobile broadband and modernizing the system for telecom subsidies.

Musical chairs at the FCC could make Genachowski an even more attractive pick, several sources said. Republican Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker and an as-yet-unannounced successor for Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps will need to make their way through Senate confirmation in the coming months, and a new chairman could be packaged as part of the process. 

Jessica Rosenworcel, the top telecom aide to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va), is widely cited as a likely pick to replace Copps. A top position for his aide might encourage Rockefeller to support Genachowski for Commerce secretary. Rosenworcel could be in the running for the FCC chairmanship if Genachowski leaves, sources said.

This post was updated at 7:08 a.m.