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Washington Report: confirmations, Lifeline and oversight

By Bob Deegan, director – Government Relations

The FCC and the Hill have been busy recently with commission confirmations, Lifeline discussions and efforts to reauthorize the Commission.

Commissioners

After seven months with vacancies, the FCC is back to full strength following the confirmation of Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Brendan Carr in early August, just before the Senate recess. While Rosenworcel is a known entity due to her prior stint on the Commission, Carr is unfamiliar to many outside of D.C. He has been at the FCC in some capacity for the last several years, including serving as then-Commissioner Ajit Pai’s senior legal advisor on wireless, public safety and international issues and as the Commission’s General Counsel under Chairman Pai. Several Senate Democrats have questioned Carr’s ability to remain independent due to his history of service under Pai, and have used that issue in part to hold off confirming Carr to the second full term for which he was nominated at the same time as his term that will expire in June of 2018. However, the other plausible reason for the delay of that second Carr nomination is so it can be considered alongside a potential new Democratic commissioner, should Commissioner Mignon Clyburn choose to leave her already expired post before being forced to leave at the end of the 115th session of Congress, which is approximately January 3, 2019.

The final Senate confirmation was that of Chairman Pai, whose term expired last June. The chairman was eventually re-confirmed in early October but the process was not without hiccups. Many Democratic senators expressed enough opposition to Pai’s nomination over issues such as net neutrality (open internet) and media ownership that the GOP leadership was forced to invoke cloture - the process used to end debate or a filibuster on an issue - to force a vote. It is rare for cloture to be needed for the confirmation of a seat on an administrative agency such as the FCC. 

Lifeline

While the Hill spent much of its time on issues other than telecom, in early September two separate Senate committees - Commerce, Science and Transportation; and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs - held hearings on the Government Accountability Office’s report finding significant flaws and risks in the USF Lifeline program. Both hearings recognized the report was created using 2014 data and many reforms have already been implemented since then. However, while the Commerce committee generally seemed open to seeing how the reforms play out before making any significant changes to the Lifeline program, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee expressed a sense of urgency to fix the issues and pressed for more enforcement of waste, fraud and abuse. One GAO suggestion to transfer USF money from private banking institutions to the U.S. Treasury is already being implemented and is an issue that deserves particular attention to ensure the funds for all USF programs, including the High Cost Fund, are not diverted away from their intended purpose.

Oversight

An issue that has repeatedly arisen over the last several years is the need to reauthorize the FCC for the first time since 1990. The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology recently marked up and passed, by unanimous and bipartisan consent, a bill titled the FCC Reauthorization Act of 2017. This amends the Commission’s fee collection authority and includes the text of numerous communications bills that have already passed through the House, such as the FCC Process Reform Act of 2017 and the Improving Call Quality and Reliability Act, which relates to call completion. The draft also makes many additional agency reforms, such as defining the independence of the FCC’s Inspector General. However, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, is on the record as saying he doesn’t see a reauthorization package moving in the Senate for months due to other priorities. 

Nonetheless, FCC reauthorization is on the agenda for an upcoming FCC oversight hearing where all five commissioners will testify before the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. Significant time at that hearing also is also expected to be spent focusing on net neutrality, media ownership (i.e., the Sinclair-Tribune merger), and broadcasters’ right to free speech following a controversial tweet by President Donald Trump about revoking NBC’s broadcast licenses. Senate Democrats are also demanding an oversight hearing on these same issues but it has yet to be scheduled.

Filed under October 2017, Tagged with Congress, Fall 2017, FCC, Lifeline


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