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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

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House midterm switch would turn up heat on deregulatory chairman

A spokesman for Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai has told Multichannel News that the chairman, who took over the post in January 2017, “plans to lead the FCC for the foreseeable future.”

Pai — a Republican appointed to the commission by President Barack Obama in 2012, then named chair by President Donald Trump — was asked after the FCC’s Oct. 23 public meeting whether he planned to remain in that post if the Democrats took over the House in the midterm elections, as many are predicting.

[Read: Chairman Pai: The Radio World Interview]

That changeover could mean ramped-up oversight from legislators who have been tough on Pai over network neutrality and media ownership deregulation. At the post-meeting press conference, the chairman responded he “[couldn’t] speculate about hypothetical future election results that haven’t even come in yet, so, we’re staying the course.”

Plans can change, of course, but according to Brian Hart, director of the FCC’s office of media relations, the chairman will remain for that foreseeable future (in which arguably a Democratic-controlled House is certainly visible), in part because there are still a lot of things on his plate.

“Chairman Pai remains focused on his key priorities, including bridging the digital divide, fostering American leadership in 5G and empowering telehealth advancements,” Hart said.

Pai also has a children’s TV rule revamp to vote on, net neutrality deregulation to defend in court, and a quadrennial media ownership rule review to launch before the end of the year, a point he also made at the post-meeting press conference.

In addition to his tenure as an FCC member, Pai also served in the FCC’s Office of General Counsel from 2007 to 2011.

There could still be wiggle room in his “foresee-able future.”

It would definitely be unusual for a chairman to leave after only two years, but few chairs have been as under the spotlight or on the hot seat as Pai has been over his rolling back of net neutrality rules and associated issues — like the appearance of bots in the comment docket — from Senate Democrats seemingly ready to turn the tables on Republican policies and policymakers they see as threats to the commonweal.

The question about Pai’s future — lobbed at the post-public meeting press conferences at which Pai assiduously avoids making any news — was likely prompted by speculation on the street and the Hill about his future, given the pounding he has taken from the Democrats in the minority.

If Democrats do take over the House, they would likely be marching the FCC up to the Hill a lot more often and, with subpoena power, they could do some of their own investigating into the net neutrality comment docket or other issues they have with the chairman, pointed out one Hill aid. That could include actions they said benefited Sinclair Broadcast Group and moves to deregulate media ownership.

If Pai does leave, it would arguably on a deregulatory high note, with a raft of process reforms, the net neutrality rule rollback, businesses data services and copper retirement revamps and media ownership deregulation.

But one former top FCC official said he thinks the foreseeable future of Pai’s chairmanship will likely extend well beyond the election, no matter which side controls Congress.

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