President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team is reportedly pushing a proposal to strip the Federal Communications Commission of its role in overseeing competition and consumer protection.
Multichannel News has what it calls an exclusive report that says the incoming Trump administration has “signed off on an approach to remaking the Federal Communications Commission.” The plan, offered by transition team members appointed by Trump, “squares with the deregulatory philosophies of FCC Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly,” who will take a 2-1 majority after Trump’s inauguration on Friday, the report said.
Besides restructuring FCC bureaus, the majority of the transition team wants to “eventually move functions deemed ‘duplicative,’ like, say, competition and consumer protection, to other agencies, particularly the Federal Trade Commission,” Multichannel news reported. The story cites “sources familiar” with a recent meeting involving Trump officials and FCC transition team members. The Trump team has not made any on-the-record statements about specific plans for the FCC.
Pai and O’Rielly have already promised to take a deregulatory approach to broadband and telecom industries, and it’s within their power to do so. But that doesn’t mean the Trump administration could unilaterally reduce the FCC’s authority in such a way that the changes last beyond Trump’s presidency. Congress would have to be involved in a permanent reduction of FCC authority, though that isn’t inconceivable as Congressional Republicans have previously said they’d like to overhaul the Communications Act that gives the FCC its authority.
The FCC transition team appointed by Trump has six people including three individuals affiliated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), namely Roslyn Layton, Jeffrey Eisenach, and Mark Jamison. The majority plan offered by the transition team “was said to dovetail with comments from Eisenach and Layton to Congress in 2014,” which said FCC “functions are largely duplicative of those of other agencies,” Multichannel News reported.
Bedrock principles are under assault, advocate says
Harold Feld, senior VP of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, called this plan “a declaration of war on the most basic principles of universal service, consumer protection, competition, and public safety that have been the bipartisan core of the Communications Act for the last 80+ years.” Feld argued that this proposal would “poison the well for any serious effort to update the Communications Act.” Feld also worries about the impact on rural areas, which are given special protections in the Communications Act, he toldtoday.
Feld said that the FCC itself has “considerable latitude” to limit its own enforcement actions “and to use rulemakings and forbearances to strip itself of authority,” but it still has to meet the requirements of the federal Administrative Procedures Act. Moreover, the proposal to shift FCC competition and consumer protection authority to agencies such as the FTC would require the writing of extremely complicated legislation in Congress, he said.
“This level of radical restructuring makes the 1996 [Communications Act update] look trivial,” Feld said.
The Trump team isn’t unanimously on board with the plan described by Multichannel News. A minority plan was offered by transition team member David Morken to “preserv[e] network neutrality rules [and] mak[e] the FCC a cabinet-level agency with increased funding,” the news site said. Morken, the founder of Bandwidth.com and Republic Wireless, recently told The Wall Street Journal that “traditional Republican telecom policy has favored incumbents who are heavily engaged in regulatory capture over innovators like us.”
We’ll find out more about the FCC’s future direction sometime after the inauguration, but for now it seems clear that the agency will take a sharp turn away from the regulatory approach of Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler, who will leave the agency this week. Consumer advocacy groups and Democratic members of Congress can be expected to oppose attempts to weaken FCC authority and repeal or replace network neutrality rules. But they will face a difficult fight with Republicans in control of the presidency, Congress, and the FCC.
The FCC normally has five members, but it will get by with just three (Pai, O’Rielly, and Democrat Mignon Clyburn) until there are long-term replacements for Wheeler and Jessica Rosenworcel, another Democrat whose term recently expired. Republicans will have a 3-2 majority once new appointments are made.