Pai Hammered By Angry Dems

So much for a Democratic kumbaya moment with FCC chair Ajit Pai.

The House Communications Subcommittee held a long-delayed FCC oversight hearing July 25, which followed Pai's announcement last week, and the FCC's unanimous vote, that the Sinclair-Tribune deal be referred to an FCC judge over concerns about whether Sinclair was really spinning off TV stations to come under the FCC's ownership cap, or whether it was retaining de facto control through sidecar deals and relationships with prospective owners.

Related: Pai Calls out Net Neutrality Chicken Littles in Hill Testimony

Pai was getting not getting much love from Democrats over his vigorous defense of rolling back network neutrality regulations, the critics of which (that included members of the committee) he branded Chicken Littles' faced with a sky that had not fallen. 

An exercised Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), subcommittee ranking member, called it a very, very overdue hearing, and said the FCC has been favoring corporate interests over those of the people. He bristled at the 'Chicken Little" characterization and fired off his criticisms as though they had been building up over that period.

While he did say he was pleased with the FCC's Sinclair hearing designation order, but said he was concerned with the President's tweeted criticism of the Sinclair decision and sought assurances from Pai that the Tweet would not cause him to change his mind, though he did not specifically seek that assurance from Pai during his questioning.

Rep. Pallone did. He quoted the President's tweet and asked each member whether they agreed with it. Pai said he stood by his decision; Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said he could not answer since the issue had been referred to the FCC judge; Commissioner Brendan Carr said the hearing designation order had laid out the fact and law as applied, and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said she did not agree with the Tweet.

Doyle leveled  a series of charges at Pai and the FCC's decisions in the nine months since the last oversight hearing.

He said the FCC had gutted the Lifeline subsidies, deregulated broadcasters to the detriment of the public, including weakened kidvid rules, and said the FCC was putting convenience of carriers over the safety needs of the public in its transition from copper to fiber. 

Ranking member of the full committee, Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said the majority had failed to live up to a promise to hold quarterly oversight hearings. He said in the interim the FCC has worked against its core mission to the benefit of big corporations and the detriment of the public, most notably in rolling back net neutrality rules, where he said Pai had ignored most of the 24 million comments on his proposal. 

Pallone said the Trump FCC wants to roll back rules that limit advertising to children, likening it to separating immigrant children from their families at the border. He said Pai's deregulatory actions also hurt the public. And while he also gave Pai a brief not for the Sinclair hearing order, he said the chairman's dergulatory policies open the door to the next Sinclair.

He called for more oversight of an agency that is "shirking" its responsibilities.

Subcommittee chair Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) has long been hearing criticism for not rescheduled until now a hearing first scheduled for February, but she pointed out at the hearing that it was the first time in 28 years all the FCC commissioners had appeared at such an oversight hearing having been reauthorized by Congress (in the RAY BAUM Act), a reauthorization she made a priority from the outset of her chairmanship.

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.