New chairman quickly shakes up FCC

New chairman quickly shakes up FCC
© Greg Nash

Ajit Pai, the new Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is quickly making his mark on the agency, shaking up its operations and rolling back Obama-era initiatives.

His moves have drawn Republican praise but alarmed Democrats and consumer groups and set the stage for the fights ahead.

In recent days, he's unleashed a flurry of agency reforms, averaging at least one a day — including one pitched by the commission's lone Democrat.

The moves are part of Pai’s campaign to make the agency more open and transparent, a promise he made after President Trump elevated him to the chairman's post.

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The changes include a pledge to release one-page fact sheets on FCC proposals, cracking down on agency staffers’ authority to edit measures after they have been approved and requiring commissioners to approve all consent decrees.

With Pai in the job for less than three weeks, his moves have quickly won him cheers from conservatives.

“For all the invented panic over Republican rule in Washington, note that Mr. Pai is divesting himself of authority and making the agency more responsive to the consumers who pay his salary,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote.

But Pai's moves have also drawn fierce criticism from Democrats and consumer activists.

On Friday, Feb. 3, he took a number of actions aimed at the legacy of former Chairman Tom Wheeler, his predecessor. Those included scrapping an FCC probe into mobile data plans that critics said violated net neutrality and retracting a report that touted E-Rate, a program funding broadband access in schools and libraries.

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn blasted those actions which came on a late afternoon as a “Friday news dump.”

But his decision to drop nine companies from the FCC’s Lifeline program, which provides subsidies to low-income families for internet access, incurred the most wrath.

Critics said it went against Pai's claims that he would focus on bridging the digital divide and improving internet access.

Pai appeared rattled by the bad press he received over the decision and in an unorthodox move defended it days later in a blog post on the Medium website.

He downplayed the impact of the Lifeline decision and excoriated the media.

“Hyperbolic headlines always attract more attention than mundane truths,” he wrote. “For example, a story detailing how the FCC was undertaking further review of the eligibility of 1% of Lifeline providers wouldn’t generate too many clicks.”

Republicans saw a chairman eager to defend his actions publicly.

But Democrats like Gigi Sohn, a former Wheeler aide, said Pai's moves were a severe blow to the Lifeline program and saw it as a call to action.

"The way you undermine this program without doing anything too drastic would be to not let any other providers participate, which would drive the prices up," Sohn told The Hill.

Through a spokesman, Pai declined to comment for this story.

Pai’s quick start has already drawn partisan battle lines, and both sides are already digging in.

Within the agency, Pai has quickly implemented measures he says will improve transparency.

His first reform was to launch a pilot program to keep the public updated on what the commission would be considering at its monthly meetings.

Speaking to reporters at the commission’s headquarters, the chairman revealed his plans to start making proposals public weeks before they were voted on by the commissioners.

Previously, the board's orders would only be released after the vote took place, a practice that Pai said kept most Americans in the dark, while allowing connected insiders to learn about the details.

Its part of a plan that Pai says will make the agency more accountable.

But Democrats aren't convinced and say he's made his biggest policy moves on Friday afternoons, when they are least likely to receive much attention.

“He uses the process reforms as a smokescreen to try to steer people away from the fact that he is dismantling pro-consumer, pro-competitive and pro-social policies from the previous administration,” Sohn said.

Republicans, though, have high hopes for Pai's tenure going forward.

In particular, GOP lawmakers are looking for him to take the lead on the most controversial item on the agency's docket, the signature Obama-era net neutrality rules.

The rules require service providers to treat all internet traffic equally and also classified those broadband providers like public utilities, giving the FCC authority to regulate them.

Pai has already said he is eager to review and scale back the rules.

But that process is likely to take months to get off the ground, many observers said privately.

And they expect Pai, often referred to as a “lawyer’s lawyer,” to take his time going after the rules in order to ensure that his work survives any legal challenges.

Democrats too are already gearing up for that fight.

“The big broadband barons and their Republican allies want to turn back the clock and make big cable and big cellphone companies the gatekeepers for internet access,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOvernight Energy: Watchdog investigating EPA enforcement numbers | EPA's Wheeler faces Senate grilling | Interior's offshore drilling staff returning to work during shutdown EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks Ocasio-Cortez, progressives express disappointment with climate panel MORE (D-Mass.) said during a press conference on Tuesday.

“They have a new FCC chairman in Ajit Pai who will do their bidding.”

In the meantime, though, Pai is showing no signs of slowing down.

"We’ve made progress over the past few weeks," Pai wrote in his blog post.

"And we’ll do more in the time to come to benefit all Americans."