FCC: A Woman on the Verge

Genachowski’s departure from chairman post could usher in historic change at the commission

Why This Matters

Ladies in Waiting

Whether on their own or through others, these powerful Washington women are making a case for the FCC chair post:

Karen Kornbluh
, interviewed recently by Judy Woodruff on PBS NewsHour, said, “Too often kids are using [the Internet] to waste time….What we need to do is get great content online…that’s a real role I think for public policy, both in terms of getting greater broadband into the schools with the E-Rate [a program for subsidizing high-speed broadband to schools] and solving the spectrum crunch with these new incentive auctions.”

A letter from 25 Democratic senators backing Jessica Rosenworcel as an FCC chair candidate states: “We write to urge you to give serious consideration to nominating commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel of the FCC to be the agency’s first chairwoman….She is equally respected by industry, the public safety community and public interest groups….By choosing a sitting commissioner that has established bipartisan Senate support, you can quickly install a proven leader at this important agency.”

Susan Crawford
, in her 2013 book, The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, writes: “The country’s regulatory structure, as much because of politics as of reasoned policy making, has not kept up with the consolidation in carriers, the sweeping effects of convergence of all media and the increasing control over information flows possessed by the giant carriers in the country.” —JE

As the days dwindle down on the tenure of the FCC chairman, some of the women who may be in line for the post, and their allies in Congress, are pressing their case around town. Those close to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski are figuring that he will exit soon after the agency’s April 18 meeting, with commissioner Robert McDowell likely leaving near that time as well.

In the meantime, the campaign for the first woman to lead the FCC is in full swing, perhaps driven in part by the fact that the names of Tom Wheeler, former National Cable & Telecommunications Association president and a onetime top tech adviser to President Obama (not to mention a big campaign bundler for the administration) and National Telecommunications and Information Adminstration chief Larry Strickling continue to be mentioned as leading candidates for the post.

Karen Kornbluh, who has been on the short list of candidates among Washington handicappers, recently stepped down as U.S. representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, clearing a path to the chairmanship if she gets the nod.

Kornbluh, a former assistant bureau chief of the FCC’s international bureau, appeared on PBS NewsHour last month to talk about bridging the digital divide, one of Genachowski’s prime directives at the FCC and an issue clearly shared by the president, who made the broadband push part of his 2012 State of the Union address.

Kornbluh spoke on NewsHour about spurring broadband through getting more quality content online, incentive auctions and building out schools— the sort of agenda one would expect from a new FCC chairman, a post sources say Kornbluh had been seeking while with the administration.

Kornbluh could certainly prove to be a procedural reformer as the first female chair. Before joining the administration, she was a visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress and contributed to the report “A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything.” She also founded the Work and Family Program at the New America Foundation, arguing that institutions needed to change to help two-income families juggling work and home life.

Friends in High Places

Current FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has friends in high places—in this instance, Senate Democrats—who are pressing her case with the president. In a letter described as “amazing” and “unusual” by Beltway communications policy watchers, a majority of Senate Democrats sent a letter to Obama that was the equivalent of a ringing endorsement of Rosenworcel, at least in the parlance of the Senate, where phrases are parsed to the nth degree.

The letter was spearheaded by Rosenworcel’s former boss, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), whose committee vets FCC nominees. The letter was signed by, among others, committee members Bill Nelson of Florida, Mark Warner of Virginia, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. It calls Rosenworcel a “superb” candidate and talks about the ease of confirming a sitting commissioner who has already been vetted by Congress. It did not mention that Mignon Clyburn, the senior Democrat on the commission, also received bipartisan support for her nomination.

Rosenworcel had no comment, but sources said she has indicated she did not seek the endorsement letter; a Rockefeller source confirmed the senator was acting on his own. One lobbyist added that while Wheeler remains atop their list of candidates, the letter on Rosenworcel “complicates things.”

A long shot for the chairman’s post and a radioactive choice for big media companies is former Obama tech adviser Susan Crawford, who has also been far from a wallflower of late, prominently pushing her views on the current state of telecom policy, most notably in a new book, The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. In the book, Crawford uses the Comcast/NBCUniversal merger to argue that there is a crisis in American communications driven by big companies whose collusive policies have not been checked by government.

E-mail comments to jeggerton@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton