The Senate this week confirmed Nathan Simington for the seat on the FCC currently held by Michael O’Rielly. It is expected that Mr. Simington will be sworn in as a new Commissioner later this week, allowing Commissioner O’Rielly to serve through tomorrow’s FCC open meeting where he will likely give his farewell comments to the FCC and communications audience. Commissioner O’Rielly has generally been a friend to broadcasters, championing many causes for the industry, including changes to the Children’s Television rules and fighting pirate radio. Broadcasters will certainly miss his voice at the FCC.
Commissioner Simington comes to the FCC with a relatively low-profile background. He has been a lawyer for less than a decade, and his communications background appears to be limited to serving as an in-house lawyer for a wireless service company and working at the NTIA (the administration within the Commerce Department charged with developing communications policy for the administration and oversight over government spectrum). At NTIA, he worked to some degree on the administration’s proposals for the FCC to interpret provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (see our posts here and here) – proposals currently under review by the Commission. His outlook as a Republican appointee seems to generally be a deregulatory one, though his specific thoughts about broadcast regulation have not been set out in any detail.
With his confirmation, it appears that the FCC, upon Chairman Pai‘s announced departure from the FCC before the Biden inauguration, will be split with 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans until a Biden nomination to the open seat now held by the Chairman can be made and confirmed by the Senate. So, at least for the near term, it would appear that there will not be significant substantive regulatory changes at the FCC. Of course, whether there will be any change in philosophy that affects more day-to-day FCC activity depends on specific appointments to leadership positions within the agency, including the selection of an interim chairperson until a permanent chair is selected by the new President. We will be watching as the changing of the guard unfolds at the FCC in 2021.