The Senate on Monday approved, after months of delay, the nominations as new FCC Commissioners of Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel and Republican Ajit Pai. Once they are sworn in and assume their new jobs in the next few days, this will bring the FCC up to full strength with 5 seated Commissioners for the first time in a year. Rosenworcel comes from having worked for the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees FCC regulation. She previously worked as a legal assistant to former Commissioner Copps at the FCC. Pai has also worked on the Hill and at the FCC, so both have experience with issues before the Commission.
So what do these nominations mean for broadcasters? Probably, not much in the immediate term. With the two new Commissioners being added to the FCC, the balance of power remains in favor of the Democrats. But, as we have seen over the years, most Commission decisions aren’t decided on a partisan basis – in fact most are unanimous. In the recent past, there are a few decisions where the Commission has been somewhat divided, with Republican Robert McDowell tending to take a somewhat more deregulatory position, as in connection with the recent ruling on online public inspection files for TV stations. But party affiliation is not necessarily a guide to a Commissioner’s positions, as many of the proposals for broadcast re-regulation first arose during the Republican administration of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin (see, for instance, the proposals for localism regulation and the original proposal for an online public file adopted in 2007).
Having a full Commission does, however, sometimes lead to a more thorough vetting of controversial issues. Just having two more Commissioners, each with their own legal staff, to consider the often-controversial matters that come before the FCC can lead to a more thorough and nuanced review of all points raised in any debate. That is just human nature – the more people involved in a decision, the more points of view that will be represented in the debate. From time to time, it may be one Commissioner, or one legal assistant, who becomes the expert on a nuance of an issue, and his or her position can influence the ultimate outcome of a decision. With so many important issues for broadcasters on the Commission’s docket – from the ownership proceeding, to the TV spectrum reclamation proposals through the incentive auctions, to the issues about the quantification of the public interest obligation of broadcasters through the new form to take the place of Form 355 and the quarterly issues programs lists – a thorough examination of every issue is always welcome. Obviously, the specific positions that Commissioners will take on issues, and how they will interact with their colleagues and with the industries that they regulate, can’t be determined until well after they take office and get settled in their new roles. So watch the full 5-Commissioner FCC carefully over the next few months as these new Commissioners begin to make their positions known and as they exert their influence over the direction of the FCC.