Life in the minority at the FCC

The hallway outside of Jessica Rosenworcel’s office is lined with framed copies of bills the FCC commissioner helped write during her time as a Senate staffer.

There’s the Broadband Data Improvement Act, which requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to periodically survey the country to find where people do and don’t have access to high-speed internet. There’s a 2010 law that expanded protections for people with disabilities to cover new technologies. And there’s the Net 911 Improvement Act, which ensures internet-based telephone services are compatible with emergency response networks.

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In an interview with The Hill last week, Rosenworcel said that when she first put the framed documents up it felt like an extravagance. But now she welcomes the reminder of a time when lawmakers were passing more bills on technology issues, compared to Congresses that have grown less productive even while scrutinizing technology industries more than ever.

“The digital age is disrupting so much of what we think we know, and I think that Washington is wrestling with that truth, this agency is struggling with it, and I know it’s a challenging reality for the job I have here today,” she said. “We’ve never talked about communications, technology and digital life as much as we do today.”

Rosenworcel is nearly two years into her second stint as a Democratic member of the FCC. Her first five-year term was during the Obama administration before she left the agency briefly when her confirmation for a new term was held up amid Senate bickering.

Prior to being confirmed in 2012, Rosenworcel was a policy counsel at the Senate Commerce Committee, first under the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) then former Sen. John RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerBottom Line World Health Day: It's time to fight preventable disease Lobbying World MORE (D-W.Va.). Prior to that, she got her start as a staffer for the FCC in 1999.

Since the Trump administration began and Rosenworcel’s Republican colleague Ajit Pai took over as chairman, many of the achievements of the prior FCC have been rolled back and its authority has worn away under an ambitious deregulatory agenda.

The most prominent instance has been Pai’s repeal of net neutrality, which the commission agreed to in a party-line vote at the end of 2017. The open internet regulations, which required internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally, were hugely popular among Americans, but the FCC’s original 2015 order engendered fierce Republican opposition because it opened the broadband industry up to tougher oversight from the agency.

The Republican majority has also rolled back restrictions on media consolidation at a time when broadcasters and publishers are eagerly chasing mega-deals.

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As a member of the minority on the current commission, Rosenworcel is limited in the ways she can fight back. Still, she says she thinks it’s important to speak out constantly about where she thinks the agency is falling short.

“It’s not easy being in the minority,” said Michael Copps, who served as a Democratic commissioner from 2001 to 2011 and is Rosenworcel’s former boss. “She has shown some inventive and creative ways to get the word out. I think her voice is being heard even though she is in the minority. I think you folks in the media go to her because you know she knows what she’s talking about.”

The day before she spoke with The Hill, Rosenworcel testified alongside Pai before the House Appropriations Committee after the FCC’s leadership requested a budget that would shrink its allocation by nearly $4 million.

“So many people think that Washington is rigged against them,” she told Congress. “It saddens me that with this budget, and with the actions of the FCC during the past two years, it appears they are right. That is because too often the FCC has acted at the behest of the corporate forces that surround it, shortchanging the American people and undermining our digital future.”

Asked what it feels like to go from the majority of the commission to the minority, Rosenworcel showed no sign that she’s discouraged.

“Well I think it’s just a reminder that if you think things aren’t right you’ve got to speak up,” she said. “These are not days to be shy. Perhaps I’ve grown a little louder and a little bolder, but for that I make no apology.”

Rosenworcel has not limited her advocacy to the commission’s policy agenda. She’s also used her perch to elevate other women in technology and public policy and has been outspoken about the lack of representation she sees.

Last September, Rosenworcel started a new podcast called Broadband Conversations featuring interviews with women in technology, academia and public policy. Among her guests have been Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoDemocrats press Trump Treasury picks on donor disclosure guidelines McConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment MORE (D-Nev.), Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant and Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist who currently serves as the academic dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Rosenworcel is well-positioned to become the first woman to chair the FCC if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020. She says she doesn’t think much about the prospect, but rather focuses on her current job and how she can promote women who are making strides in professions that are still dominated by men.

“The more people see and hear women working in technology the more we’re going to make it possible for women to do so,” Rosenworcel says. “I feel like we have to start being a little louder about these things if we want to see some change.”

Rosenworcel takes pride in her “spectacularly nerdy role” as commissioner — during the interview on Thursday, she contrasted her job with that of her brother, the drummer for the rock band Guster. Her large desk was buried beneath teetering stacks of documents and file folders, which she said was part of her efforts to prepare for the budget hearing the day before.

“My first and lasting impression was just the prodigious expertise she brought with her,” Copps told The Hill. “When she became commissioner after I had left, I think she was arguably the best-prepared person in terms of understanding the matters that ever came to the FCC.”

Rosenworcel may not be driving policy as much as she used to, but she says she still feels a responsibility and an enthusiasm to push for ideas that she believes in.

“I come in here every day jazzed to do good,” she said. “That’s been my attitude since the start of this administration since I returned to this job. Honestly, that hasn’t changed — the only thing that’s changed is that I drink more coffee.”