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Editorial: Wheeler at the Wheel

President Obama has tapped Tom Wheeler to be the next FCC chairman. He should get his pick.

Wheeler may not be the ideal candidate broadcasters would draw up—he’s too cable- and wireless-centric. But he is smart, tech-savvy and has had to run a business and argue for competition and market forces over regulation in his past life atop the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and CTIA.

Wheeler’s invocation of Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech at his Senate Commerce Committee nomination hearing last week did not win him any broadcast friends. But so long as he uses the bully pulpit rather than the regulatory lash on indecency, the industry can choose to take or leave that content call. It also remains to be seen whether Wheeler’s concern about consumers being “held hostage” to business negotiations is in the concerned but restrained mode of his predecessor, Julius Genachowski, or a former cable lobbyist latching onto a cable issue. We will reserve judgment.

During the hearing, Wheeler fielded questions thoughtfully, skillfully skirting the issues that could get him in trouble with the committee, and advocating for broadband and competition and successful spectrum auctions. He did not weigh in on some issues that involve open FCC proceedings, and others because he has not yet been privy to any but the public info.

While committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) said he had no doubt Wheeler would be approved, there was at least one cloud over the prospect.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has called for a written answer on whether Wheeler thinks the FCC has the authority to require more detailed disclosures on election ads. Wheeler did not have an answer, though he said he understood that the issue caused “tension” on the committee. At least we know Wheeler has the gift of understatement. There have been heated exchanges between Democrats who argue the FCC has the authority to require identi!cation of the donors—if corporations are being de!ned by the Supreme Court as people, they should have to have the same “I paid for this ad” requirements—and Republicans who say it is an illegal end-run around the failure to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required enhanced disclosures.

Cruz said political ad disclosures represented the single issue that could derail Wheeler’s nomination. There were months of inaction on the nominations of FCC commissioners Ajit Pai and Jessica Rosenworcel last year after a hold was put on them. Almost invariably the nominations eventually go through, so the tactic only results in the FCC being understaffed. And in this case that would come at a time when the commission faces its most complicated and potentially game-changing issue in recent memory—the broadcast spectrum incentive auctions. Wheeler last week described them as a Rubik’s Cube puzzle. We hope that obvious understanding of the unprecedented complexity will inform Wheeler’s push for an “expedited” auction.

In any event, the president’s choice is worthy of the post and the challenge. The political disclosure issue is worth debating—the FCC already has an open proceeding on it. But it should not be used to block Wheeler’s path to the seat.