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President Trump Elevates Ajit Pai to FCC Chair

Variety logo Variety 1/23/2017 Ted Johnson
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Ajit Pai has officially been elevated to the post of FCC chairman by President Trump, succeeding Tom Wheeler.

“I am deeply grateful to the President of the United States for designating me the 34th Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission,” Pai said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the new Administration, my colleagues at the Commission, members of Congress, and the American public to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans.”

Pai, 44, will not have to go through the Senate confirmation process as he has been a commissioner since 2012. His term, however, expires at the end of the year, meaning that Trump will have to renominate him and he will be confirmed to extend his tenure.

He has been a critic of the FCC’s approach to net neutrality rules, and said in a speech last month that Trump’s election was an “inflection Point” where “we will shift from playing defense at the FCC to going on offense.”

On Twitter, he took a more bipartisan tone.

“There is so much we can do together to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans and to promote innovation and investment,” he wrote. “From broadband to broadcast, I believe in a 21st-century version of Jefferson’s 2nd Inaugural: we are all Republicans, we are all Democrats.”

Republicans now enjoy a 2-1 majority on the FCC, after eight years in the minority under President Barack Obama. The other commissioners are Michael O’Rielly, a Republican, and Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat.

Trump will get to nominate two additional commissioners to fill the vacancies — one Republican and one Democrat. Traditionally, they have been nominated at the same time to ease the confirmation process.

His selection is not a surprise — news broke on Friday that he would be Trump’s selection. But as the senior Republican on the commission, his name was already in the mix as a strong contender for the spot.

Pai is expected to diverge greatly from the agenda of Wheeler, who was chairman for almost four years under President Obama, by taking a lighter touch on regulation. Trump’s transition team reportedly have been looking to streamline agency functions, and even move some bureaus, like those for consumer protection, to other agencies. On Monday, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC, called for legislation to “modernize how the FCC operates and to reform what the FCC is allowed to do.”

Pai and O’Rielly dissented on some of the most contentious issues before the FCC, including net neutrality, broadband privacy rules, and media ownership. Pai could move to roll back some of Wheeler’s agenda, but in certain cases he will still have to go through a public review process.

In his speech last month, Pai signaled that he would look to reverse regulatory moves. “We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation,” he said.

David L. Cohen, senior executive vice president at Comcast, said in a statement that Pai had made “tireless efforts to develop and support policies that benefit American consumers and spur greater investment and innovation in broadband technologies to connect all Americans and drive job creation. This is a terrific appointment for the American consumer and the companies the FCC regulates and we look forward to continuing to work with Chairman Pai in his new role.”

Public interest groups expressed skepticism.

Gene Kimmelman, president and CEO of Public Knowledge, said that Pai “has a history of attacking consumer protections, from the Open Internet order to our right to privacy online. Even so, every Commissioner who has been elevated to Chairman discovers the job is very different from what he or she thought it would be. Most quickly discover that getting things done while running an agency sometimes requires a different set of skills as well as a willingness to compromise.”

The next FCC open commission meeting is Jan. 31.

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