Editorial: Staying the Course?

Republicans are in the driver’s seat on Capitol Hill, but it remains to be seen how much that will affect the agenda of the Democratic-led FCC.

There were calls for chairman Tom Wheeler not to impose any form of Title II regs given the new, deregulatory tenor of the Senate and the House. But Wheeler, the head of an independent agency, signaled last week that consumers and the public interest, not Congress, are his principal constituents.

He also has the backing of the president on network neutrality, and Obama is arguably left of Wheeler on paid priority. The president seemed to flatly reject it, but Wheeler continues to leave some wiggle room for there being two sides to the Internet market, or at least for the kind of prioritizing that might be beneficial—like, say, prioritizing remote health monitoring over kitten videos.

Wheeler last week may have provided the most telling insight into his view of the role of FCC chairman. That came at a speech to venture capitalists— kindred spirits, as Wheeler used to be one himself—when he said he viewed his role as much like that of a CEO. “Like a CEO, the buck stops here,” he said. “I am grateful that I have four other commissioners with whom to work, but by statute I am the CEO of an agency charged with the responsibility of overseeing industries that make up approximately one-sixth of the U.S. economy.”

More than one observer inside and outside the commission has commented on Wheeler’s management style, which is more CEO or cabinet officer than one of fi ve commissions—and, needless to say, the one that sets the agenda. Wheeler may be No. 1 among the five commissioners, but it would not hurt to keep more folks in the loop on decisions, especially at the commission itself. Some folks over there have been surprised by the circulation of items.

Wheeler is likely to be undeterred by additional criticism from Senate Republicans, though he could well be called to testify on a more regular basis to explain why he is undeterred.

Frankly, Democrat or Republican, the chair of the FCC should remain independent and do what he or she thinks is best for the public and the preservation and advancement of communications, which we would argue includes giving broadcasters some regulatory relief and improving the incentive auction order and not using the multichannel video programming distributor redefinition proposal to the disadvantage of broadcasters. But that is another editorial; in fact, it’s several of them.