FCC’s Name Game: Musical Chair?

WASHINGTON — “I’ll bet you a lunch Julius Genachowski is not still around in August,” one veteran Federal Communications Commission observer opined last week.

Another top lobbyist, though, doubted that the agency’s chairman would exit his post before the FCC votes its final order on incentive auctions — something that more than likely won’t happen before August.

Either way, whoever is chairing the FCC will have the daunting task of writing the next chapter in the transition to digital television, former FCC chief Reed Hundt suggested at a seminar two weeks ago.

Genachowski has played his cards close to the vest, saying he has no plans to go anywhere and is still focused on the job at hand, which at the moment includes trying to wrap up a media ownership review and remake the broadcast spectrum band to accommodate wireless broadband service. A spokesman reiterated the chairman’s statement that he has no plans to leave.

But Genachowski has a Harvard lawyer’s attention to language. “Plans” can change, and most lobbyists and lawyers who deal with the commission regularly are predicting his exit. His departure, after all, would be part of a larger end-of-President Obama’s-first-term exodus that includes such top officials as the secretaries of state, treasury and defense.

Looking to get in front of the curve, the Women’s Media Center, launched by Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem, has already called on Obama to nominate a woman to replace Genachowski, suggesting in an email two weeks ago that a new nomination was imminent. A woman has never chaired the FCC.

So who’d take the big chair if Genachowski steps aside? Some prominent women are certainly in the discussion. Already on the commission are Democrats Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel.

Clyburn is the first African-American woman on the commission, and the daughter of Rep. James Clyburn (DS. C.). Rosenworcel is the most recent Democratic addition and has close ties with the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.).

Rockefeller has recently announced that he won’t run for re-election, and one top lobbyist said that could hurt Rosenworcel’s chances for the top post. But Rockefeller’s departure date is January of 2015, so his preferences could still come into play.

The political difficulty in picking one extant female commissioner over the other could pave the way for a third woman candidate: Karen Kornbluh, who has served at the State Department as Ambassador and U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since August 2009.

Kornbluh was Obama’s policy director when he was a U.S. senator from Illinois and has also been director of the FCC’s Office of Legislative and Government Affairs. She would be leaving just as her old boss comes aboard as secretary of state — she is a former policy adviser to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) — but is said to have been actively seeking the FCC post.

Another White House name that has surfaced as a candidate is Jason Furman, assistant to the president for economic policy and principal deputy director of the National Economic Council. Furman has been dealing with bigger issues as one of the point people on the fiscal cliff negotiations, but telecom is also part of his portfolio. Proximity to the Oval Office can definitely grease the skids if Furman wants the job.

If the president decides not to choose a woman for the post, National Telecommunications & Information Administration chief Lawrence Strickling’s name is high on a lot of Washington lists. He is clearly qualified and has the good will of the White House for his work in the trenches during the 2008 Obama campaign.

As head of the NTIA — essentially the FCC for government spectrum holders — Strickling has worked with Genachowski on freeing up spectrum for mobile broadband.

Among other names being floated: Tom Wheeler, former head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and Obama tech policy adviser; Blair Levin, broadband plan czar and former chief of staff to FCC chairman Reed Hundt; FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake; Scott Blake Harris, formerly of the FCC and currently with Neustar; David Krone, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and former Comcast and NCTA exec.; and Catherine Sandoval of the California Public Utilities Commission.


While Washington speculates as to when FCC chief Julius Genachowski might depart, candidates to succeed him are surfacing.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.