Humble Pai one of the best-prepared FCC chairs in history
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Incoming Federal Communications Commissioner (FCC) Chair Ajit Pai will rise to the top spot as one of the best prepared and best-liked commissioners in FCC history.

The classic Washington joke is that every U.S. senator wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror and sees the face of the next American president staring back. For years, Pai has looked in the mirror and seen the face of the next FCC chairman staring back.

Hailing from the heartland of America, Pai, the second-generation son of medical doctors, has a disarming, aw-shucks, demeanor that belies his Harvard education, elite legal pedigree and inside-Washington resume. His self-effacing style and encyclopedic grasp of popular culture contribute to a profile of warmth and affability. He's the guy most folks would want to watch a ballgame and have a few beers with.

Pai's public service includes positions as FCC deputy general counsel, senior positions at the Justice Department, and deputy chief counsel at the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the private sector, Pai was an attorney at a high-powered Washington law firm and appointed associate general counsel at Verizon communications.

Now Pai stands on the doorstep of his biggest role ever: FCC chairman. It is a role for which he has been preparing for over a decade, and a role for which he is imminently qualified. Pai has taken the time to master the arcane statutory and regulatory grist that drives the mill at the FCC.

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On just about any major communications issue, Pai can provide an impressive litany of legal, policy and popular citations for his position—often without notes.

 

A relentless promoter of limited government, Pai has become the go-to guy for the protection of the basic interests of Main Street. He is also a reliable ally of traditional communications incumbents in the telecom and media sector, who have relied on his sparkling, but oh-so-sound, dissents.

In fact, Pai's dissents from the FCC bench are a must-see for any student of politics, law and regulation. They are typically long, painstakingly footnoted and carefully crafted to present Pai's preferred legal options. They are often laugh-out-loud funny.

While he is prone to a bit of gimmickry from time to time, Pai's legal analyses are masterfully reminiscent of late Supreme Court Antonin Justice Scalia in terms of rationale, approach and style. That might owe something to the behind-the-scenes handicraft of his incomparable aide-de-camp, Matthew Berry, himself a former law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas and a legal heavyweight in his own right. Together, these two are usually the smartest guys in the room, hands down.

As chairman, Pai and his team will have a number of benefits that will allow him to hit the ground running. First, Pai has won friends and influenced a lot of people in both government and industry. He is the guy who remembers birthdays, anniversaries and first names of everybody's kids, from the folks in the mailroom to the boardroom.

It is a common touch that stands him in good stead with the staff, and counts for a lot on the leadership scale. For the beleaguered FCC, this is important for morale, and will give Pai the benefit of the doubt on any retrenchments the agency may face in funding or staffing due to congressional prerogatives.

The other plus for Pai is that he has a long record of cooperation with congressional leaders and senior staff who have shown remarkable deference to his insight on FCC procedure, policy and practices.

Congress likes Pai's unwavering focus on the impact of regulation on the American people. It is a theme that resonates seamlessly with GOP orthodoxy as defined by the key members of the Commerce Committees in the House and Senate. Pai’s warm relations with Congress will mean fewer congressional intrusions into the FCC's business, which should lead to an agency that will function more efficiently.

But the future scenario is not all hearts and flowers for Pai. He will now have to balance his rhetoric with reality. For years, Pai has been an outspoken champion of such issues as diversity in media ownership and low-cost communications programs for rural and inner-city Americans. These positions have won Pai respect from many consumer groups as a voice of reason, but are not on the mainstream Republican agenda.

In a highly charged partisan political environment, Pai will have to reconcile these and other competing interests.

The other challenge for Pai will be more personal. For years, he was relegated to the Siberian wilderness of the FCC minority, where he often felt disrespected and disregarded. It was a place both Pai, and to a lesser extent, fellow Commissioner Mike O’Rielly made known they did not like or deserve. The political slights and sleight of hand by outgoing Chairman Tom Wheeler are hard to forget, and perhaps harder to forgive.

If Ajit Pai is to become the leader that his experience promises and everyone believes, he will have to let bygones be bygones, and press on to a higher calling. While difficult to do when holding the mantle of power, this not only will be good for the FCC and public interest, but also good for Pai, personally. After all, it is plain to see that the FCC is not likely to be Pai's last stop in government, nor should it be.

Adonis Hoffman is chairman of Business in the Public Interest and adjunct professor of Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. He is a former chief of staff and senior legal adviser for an FCC commissioner.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.