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FCC Uncertainty After O'Rielly Nom Gets Pulled

FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly
(Image credit: FCC)

FCC member Michael O’Rielly attended Thursday’s monthly Open Meeting, the only commissioner to wear a jacket and tie for the abbreviated online session. But he didn’t offer a clue by press time as to whether he will keep his seat — as he is entitled to do until Congress adjourns, presumably around Christmastime — or if he will move on sooner in the wake of the unexpected White House decision to pull his renomination on Monday (Aug. 3).

The Trump administration offered no explanation for the sudden withdrawal of O’Rielly’s reappointment, which was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in mid-July and was awaiting full Senate confirmation. Although Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) had threatened to stymie the process because of disagreement about O’Rielly’s vote to approve Ligado Networks' application to build a low-power terrestrial 5G network in the L-band spectrum, the real rationale stems from the commissioner’s outspoken challenge to administration efforts to force the FCC to handle Section 230 issues in the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

O’Rielly has questioned President Donald Trump’s executive order that would require the FCC to oversee Section 230 enforcement of social-media platforms. In an interview on C-SPAN and at a Media Institute presentation, O’Rielly contended that the FCC does not have Congressional authority to regulate social-media activities. 

The timing is particularly awkward. If O’Rielly does leave now, the agency will face partisan 2-2 votes on controversial issues until a successor is installed. 

Several names have already been bruited about, mostly Capitol Hill and executive branch staffers, but Washington policy experts pointed out there is insufficient time for the FBI to conduct background checks on potential candidates. Moreover, the Senate Commerce Committee is unlikely to take up a confirmation hearing in the waning months of this session.

Looming over everything is the November election, which may set a new course at the White House and the Senate. If a Democratic administration takes over, it would appoint a Democrat to O’Rielly’s seat. 

The White House nominated O’Rielly, a member of the FCC’s three-Republican majority, on March 18 for a term that officially began on July 1, 2019. He has been serving continually since his initial appointment in 2013 and President Barack Obama appointed him to a full term in 2015.