Debate on
Debate on "net neutrality" is affecting the FCC nomination | the commons

Communications job: On hold

Supreme Court wannabe Merrick Garland isn’t the only nomination stuck in the U.S. Senate.

While senators break before they head into the summer legislative season, Democratic Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel's renomination lingers, as it is subject to multiple “legislative” holds – a maneuver whereby a single senator can indefinitely delay a presidential nomination. Rosenworcel’s objectors remain anonymous.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., recently criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for not bringing Rosenworcel's nomination up for a floor vote, with fellow party members following suit.

McConnell's office did not return AMI Newswire's request for comment.

During a Senate Commerce Committee meeting on  April 27, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., mentioned the hold, saying that he agreed  not to place his own hold on the confirmation of Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Reilly in 2014 if Rosenworcel was also confirmed.

"I would just point out to the senator from Massachusetts that, as he knows, we reported favorably out of this committee her nomination, and its action on the floor is going to be up to our two leaders, who I'm told discussed this at some point," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., in response to Markey.

"I was not a party to that conversation, so I'm not someone who can recall the discussions that occurred, but we have, I think, at least at this level, done our part to try and move her nomination forward," he said.

Thune has previously suggested that, while he does not know who put the hold on Rosenworcel's nomination, the freeze could be linked to her split from FCC chairman Tom Wheeler in 2014 when she suggested that more time was needed for public comment before the commission voted on whether to regulate broadband providers, such as phone companies.

In February, 2015, after an exhausting multiyear public relations battle between Internet service providers and major tech companies, such as Netflix and Google, the commission ruled 3-2 in favor of regulation.

The fate of the net neutrality rules currently rests in the hands of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, whose decision regarding a lawsuit brought by the ISPs against the FCC is expected soon. 

The regulatory battle was part of the larger "net neutrality" war, which has focused on whether the FCC has the authority to tightly regulate broadband providers. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast have been in the cross-hairs of net neutrality activists for over a decade.

Google, Facebook and Netflix have worried that the ISPs would use their position as so-called "gatekeepers" to slow down traffic that could be competitive to services they offer, harming free expression and startups. But as the Internet has changed, so too has the power and influence of global companies, such as Facebook, which began as a dorm-room startup. Netflix, for example, has admitted that it had been slowing the speeds of Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless customers for five years, but did not do so for Sprint and T-Mobile customers.

Wheeler was first viewed with suspicion from the progressive left's tech lobby and civil society groups for his ties to the telecom industry. Aiming to be perceived as a visionary and a thought leader, he has dutifully worked to carry out President Barack Obama's tech policy agenda.

Republicans have accused Wheeler of running the agency as an extension of the White House. Wheeler was cemented as the villain for center-right lobbyists and industry watchers when his office's outreach efforts to net neutrality advocates raised questions of political and ideological bias.

In March, Thune asked Wheeler, whose term technically ends in 2018, if he intended to resign at the close of Obama administration. Traditionally, the agency's chairman resigns at the end of an administration to allow for the incoming president to nominate a chairman from his party. The embattled chairman declined to commit to stepping down.

"I understand precedent; I understand expectations," Wheeler said. "I also understand that 10 or 11 months is a long time. So it’s probably not the wisest thing in the world to do, to make some kind of ironclad commitment, but I understand the point you’re making.”