Washington report: activity amid the shutdown
It is now more than one month into the partial government shutdown as Congress and the president remain unable to agree on appropriations for multiple government entities, including the FCC.
This is the longest shutdown in U.S. history and the first to span two sessions of Congress, with the end of the 115thand the beginning of the 116th. However, it is important to note the 115th Congress took a couple of important FCC-related steps before adjourning: the last-minute confirmations of Geoffrey Starks to the vacant Democratic seat at the Commission and Commissioner Brendan Carr to serve another term. Had the Senate not acted, the nomination process would have been required to start over for both nominees.
Although Starks has been confirmed, he is awaiting White House paperwork to be completed before he can be sworn in and it is unclear whether that will happen before the end of the shutdown.
While government funding remains an obstacle, both chambers of Congress have been moving forward with the reorganization that comes with a new session, especially since control of the House has shifted to the Democrats. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is now speaker of the house and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remains the majority leader in the Senate. For telecom purposes, the most significant changes to follow are to the leadership of the committees overseeing the FCC.
In the House, that is the Committee on Energy and Commerce and its Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. Here the ranking members of the committee and subcommittee, Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) assumed their respective chairs. On the Republican side, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the former chair, is now the ranking member of the committee and Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) has assumed the top GOP position on the subcommittee, replacing Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) who was elected to the Senate in November.
In the Senate, the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and its Subcommittee on Communication, Technology, Innovation and the Internet oversee the FCC. Although the GOP retained Senate control, there were some changes here as Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the former chair, had to give up his chairmanship to become the majority whip, which is the second ranking leadership position in the Senate for the GOP. However, he expressed a desire to stay involved in tech and telecom matters and, as a result, swapped positions with Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). Wicker now chairs the committee while Thune has taken control of the subcommittee. On the minority side, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is now the ranking member of the committee, replacing Bill Nelson who lost his election in November, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) retains his position on the subcommittee.
Increased oversight and other priorities
Although the ongoing shutdown may be preventing the 116th Congress from hitting the ground running with respect to oversight of the FCC, it is expected oversight will be a significant priority in 2019 once the FCC is back up and running, particularly from the House Democrats. Pallone expressed a desire to hold hearings right away on issues such as bringing back net neutrality. In the Senate, Wicker also expressed interest in having telecom-related hearings but recognized that cooperation from furloughed employees is necessary. One area expected to get significant attention in both chambers is privacy, with hearings and the possibility of some form of federal privacy legislation.
Rural providers will be happy to hear that Sens. Wicker and Cantwell stated their intention to continue efforts to increase access to broadband in rural areas and get a better understanding of where services already exist.