Genachowski Still Watching His Wait

FCC workload grows bigger as chairman hearing is postponed

At the FCC, the workload continues to pile up. Meanwhile, in Washington, the spirited game of “Where's Julius?” goes on.

Julius is, of course, Julius Genachowski, the constitutional scholar and telecom policy adviser to the Obama administration who has been the presumptive new chairman of the FCC for five months—long enough to have “presumptive” business cards made up. But he remains in limbo while the FCC faces one of its most daunting tasks: the creation of a nationwide broadband deployment plan, and the data collection necessary for its foundation.

Then there is that DTV transition thing, which the FCC must oversee both now and after the big switch June 12.

Of all the things the Obama administration managed to get done in its first 100 days, getting a new FCC chairman closer to confirmation than a nomination holding pattern was not one of them.

Lobbyists around town are still trying to figure out why it has taken so long to get a nomination hearing out of the Senate. The Senate Commerce Committee got as far as announcing a date last week—May 12—only to snatch it away a day later with the announcement that it had been cancelled. “It has been agreed on a bipartisan basis to postpone the hearing until just after the Memorial Day recess,” came the only explanation. “Further details to be announced.”

Those details have not been announced, and the committee press office did not return repeated calls and e-mails as to the reason for the about-face.

That means no hearing until at least the beginning of June, and almost certainly no new chairman until after the DTV transition date of June 12. “I have heard that [the Obama administration] doesn't want him in before June 12,” said one veteran lobbyist. The lobbyist suggested there is an advantage to not having the administration pick installed in case something goes wrong with the transition. This would prevent critics from saying: “Why didn't you fix it? You were there, you could have taken some steps.”

The administration may be OK with not changing the FCC chairman in mid-digital stream. But while nobody wanted to talk on the record, multiple lobbyists contacted for this story, with ties to both Democrats and Republicans, agreed that the holdup is on the right. It sits in the Republican leaders' inability to agree on a name to fill one open slot, vacated by Deborah Taylor Tate in January, plus a second pick if they choose not to propose Republican Robert McDowell for renomination.

One theory making the rounds was that by scheduling the May 12 hearing, Democrats were working to force the Republicans' hand by trying to get it on the calendar before the Memorial Day break, which begins May 25. If so, it didn't happen.

A spokesman for Senate Republicans would not comment on why the hearing had been cancelled after being scheduled only a day before, though he pointed to the fact that they did not control the calendar.

The administration has made it clear who it wants: Genachowski and South Carolina utility regulator Mignon Clyburn. Clyburn would replace Jonathan Adelstein, who is being nominated to head the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service. But Clyburn's nomination hasn't even been officially sent to the Senate, and Adelstein can't go anywhere until Clyburn is confirmed and installed. (The FCC, by law, must have at least three commissioners or they can't vote on anything.)

McDowell: bipartisan support

McDowell has fans on both sides of the aisle, but his renomination is said to be getting some phone company pushback, stemming from his recusal from the AT&T/Bell South merger decision back in 2006. In the wake of that recusal, AT&T had to offer up conditions, including network neutrality, to get Democrats to sign on to the deal.

“Decisions on who is nominated at the FCC rest with the President of the United States and the U.S. Congress,” said AT&T in a statement. “As a regulated company, we strive to work well with whoever is nominated and confirmed for these important jobs.”

Acting chairman Michael Copps has made the waiting game easier by getting high marks for his handling of DTV, and for a collegial FCC that Republicans and Democrats alike have praised. But he has said himself he is essentially teeing up items for his successor.

According to sources, Republican congressional leaders have indicated that both Genachowski's and Clyburn's nominations would need to be paired with those of Republican nominees before they could be installed.

Leading candidates for the Republican seat/seats are Meredith Attwell Baker, former head of NTIA; FCC deputy general counsel Ajit Pai; and Lee Carosi Dunn, a communications adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Several lobbyists said Dunn had taken her name out of the running—an assertion she denied in ane-mail to B&C.

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