The Right Man for the Job?

Senate vets Michael O’Rielly for FCC Republican seat, signals urgency of filling both empty spots—and now
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jeggerton@nbmedia.com | @eggerton

The FCC could get two new members by mid-October if the leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee has its way, though the chance of a hold on FCC chairman nominee Tom Wheeler remains a real possibility.


Why This Matters
FCC nominee Michael O'Rielly will likely help shape communications policy, albeit from a minority seat, for several crucial years.

Wheeler has already been approved by the committee—though there was one “no” vote. And Republican nominee Michael O’Rielly got his day in the hot seat last week, as the committee considered his nomination for the seat once held by Robert McDowell.

Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) said last week following the hearing that he will hold a vote on O’Rielly’s nomination “soon”—which could mean as early as this week—and said he would push for quick Senate consideration. Ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) said he hoped there would be a full complement of commissioners by mid-October.

Not So Fast

O’Rielly’s nomination hearing was definitely a step toward confirmation, but the timing of his arrival at the commission is tied to Wheeler’s. And the only apparent potential stumbling block would be a hold on the Wheeler nomination.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was the “no” vote for Wheeler. And while that had no effect on the committee decision (where majority rules), a single senator can put a hold on a nomination, and Cruz continues to keep that possibility on the table.

Cruz has said he wants Wheeler to commit to not using the FCC’s rules about sponsorship identification to require more specific information about the sponsors of political ads. Wheeler has suggested he understands the concern, but in his answer to Cruz he would not foreclose any conclusions, saying he would be guided by the Constitution and legal precedent in deciding the scope of the FCC provisions. According to a Cruz aide, the senator is still not satisfied with Wheeler’s answer, and the hold threat remains.

Light Touch Regulator

In his written testimony, Wheeler invoked both Ronald Reagan and Thomas Jefferson in championing relatively hands-off government. He said that one of his goals at the commission would be to weed out unnecessary regulations, or ones with an untoward economic impact, making him sound much like his predecessor, Julius Genachowski.

O’Rielly, who has worked for Hill Republicans for two decades, planted a deregulatory flag at the hearing, saying—in the always-couched language that is part and parcel of nominee hearings—that he was inclined to loosening media ownership regulations. He added that he would have to check the record and take impact on diversity into account, but appeared ready for the FCC to finally weigh in on ownership. He hedged an answer about whether he thought broadcasters are using sharing agreements to circumvent local ownership rules, but suggested they are just trying to work within the system given the FCC’s inaction on loosening those rules.

He was less circumspect when it came to indecency, and pledged to enforce the FCC’s indecency regs, adding that he understands congressional and parental concern about kids’ access to content.

O’Rielly also had plenty to say about the FCC trying to limit bidders in the incentive auctions. Saying he had been following auctions “exceptionally closely” for 20 years, he said: “When the commission has tried to micromanage or manipulate spectrum auctions, it has often been problematic.”

Some broadcasters, particularly those in the Expanding Opportunities coalition, are concerned that limiting the bidders in the auction could put a constraint on the take for stations who give up spectrum.

O’Rielly pledged to work with Commerce chairman Rockefeller to modernize e-rate and get the spectrum auctions right so they can pay for the emergency communications network Rockefeller has been pushing since just after the terror attacks of Sept. 11.

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