FCC passes controversial rule changing how it handles consumer complaints

FCC passes controversial rule changing how it handles consumer complaints
© Greg Nash

The Federal Communications Commission passed a proposal to overhaul the agency's procedures for processing consumer complaints Thursday in a contentious party-line vote.

Commissioners clashed over the plan with the Republican majority insisting that the new rules are only clarifying longstanding procedures for filing and responding to complaints.

But Democrats at the agency and on Capitol Hill say the change will make the FCC less responsive to informal complaints, and force consumers to go through a formal proceeding to file grievances that costs $225.

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“This is bonkers,” Jessica Rosenworcel, the sole Democrat on the commission, said at the FCC’s open meeting Thursday. “No one should be asked to pay $225 for this agency to do its job.”

The new rules largely focus on formal complaints, making changes intended to streamline the agency’s process for adjudicating them. But the new order also eliminates text from existing rules regarding the “Commission’s disposition” in handling informal complaints.

Republican FCC Chair Ajit Pai and Rosemary Harold, the head of the agency’s enforcement bureau, insisted that there are no substantive changes to how the agency handles the informal complaint process.

In a back-and-forth during Thursday’s meeting, Harold called reports to the contrary “false.”

Thursday’s vote capped off what turned into a heated political battle.

Earlier this week, Reps. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneIntercept bureau chief: Democrats dropping support of Medicare for All could threaten bill's momentum House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 House Democrats criticize Texas's 'shortcomings in preparations' on winter storms MORE (D-N.J.) and Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleHouse committee approves slate of bills to improve telecom security Congress needs to fix the broken market for antibiotic development Congressional CEO grillings can't solve disinformation: We need a public interest regulator MORE (D-Pa.), two of the top Democrats on the committee overseeing the agency, wrote to Pai saying they were concerned that the changes would reduce the FCC’s role in protecting the public interest.

An FCC spokesperson dismissed their concerns, saying they were based on a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the proposal.

The pushback may have prompted Pai to rethink the proposal.

The Washington Post reported that on the eve of the open meeting, the chairman decided to drop the proposal's language on informal comments before changing his mind Thursday morning.

Rosenworcel said in a statement Thursday that her office was not given the draft order on which the commission was voting until around 11:30 a.m. — an hour after the meeting began.

"I think that is unfair to my office and unfair to any of us who have to vote on any agency matter," she said.

During a press conference after the meeting Pai declined to address the delay in providing his colleagues with the final draft, though he said that no changes had been made since the last time a draft was circulated among the commissioners.

--This report was updated at 4:30 p.m.