Sen. Nelson, Carr Spar Over Independence From Pai

The Senate Commerce Committee's grilling of FCC nomineesWednesday broke out along familiar political lines, with Republican nominee Brendan Carr (pictured) getting probed by the ranking member of the committee over his independence.

Carr was chairman Ajit Pai's pick for FCC general counsel and was an aide and advisor to then-commissioner Pai, who joined Carr and Jessica Rosenworcel at the witness table.

Carr was the only new face, with Pai renominated to a full term—his term ran out in June—and Rosenworcel being nominated to a new term after she was forced to leave the commission at the end of last year.

Ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said it was clear that Carr was well-liked and well-regarded by the communications bar, but he had concerns about his getting the two consecutive terms the White House is asking for.

As to serving with his boss, Nelson said it was critical to have commissioners with an independent voice at an independent regulatory agency. He said he would urge his colleagues to take a "particularly hard look" at the two-term request.

Nelson asked whether Carr could cite a time when he had substantively disagreed with Pai on an FCC matter, noting that it was unusual for a commissioner to serve alongside his boss, rather than following them (as was the case with Rosenworcel, who was a top advisor to commissioner Mike Copps but was not named a commissioner until after Copps had exited).

Carr said independence was critically important. He said when he worked for Pai, he gave him his best candid advice. Sometimes he took it, sometimes he didn't. Carr said he would commit to making his own decisions.

"I'll call it the way I see it based on the facts, the record and what I think serves the public interest, independent of where other people come out." But he also said he would strive for consensus where possible.

Nelson was unappeased and asked again for an instance of substantive disagreement, Carr deferred, saying he had been a "lawyer for commissioner Pai during those discussions." Carr talked about the "clients" he served at the FCC, suggesting there was some privilege involved in keeping his thoughts to himself. He said there was no one who was going to move him off his position once he had made his mind up.

Nelson then asked if he could foresee disagreeing. Carr responded: "I certainly have no interest in agreeing with him when I don't believe that is the right outcome."

Nelson said he was not reassured. "That is not confidence building among those of us who are wondering about your future independence from the boss you have so ably served."

Nelson also noted that Carr had been nominated to two consecutive terms, saying he would prefer Carr had a couple years on the job before a decision was made on a second hitch.

Of Rosenworcel, Nelson said it had been an, unnecessarily, long and winding road to her return to the commission and he urged swift confirmation. "She should already well be into her second term on the agency," he said. That was seconded by a number of Democrats, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, from Rosenworcel's home state of Connecticut.

Nelson gave chairman Pai credit for consumer protection actions taken at the most recent FCC meeting—cracking down on robocalls was a main focus. "I want to give you due credit for many of the actions the FCC took at the open meeting last week. They included several solid pro-consumer actions aimed at improving the lives of Americans," he said. But there was a caveat. He said "many" viewed those consumer protection actions, "as mere icing on an unpalatable cake" that includes weakening other consumer protections and making the internet less free and open. Nelson signaled he had questions about whether the chairman was putting the public interest above special interest.

Most of the questions were leveled at Pai, including on independence from the White House—he pledged it; keeping the committee apprised of the incentive auction repack process—he promised to do so, as well as making some news by confirming that the FCCdoes not think the $1.75 billion repack fund will be sufficient; and to continue to support the E-rate program that subsidizes broadband to schools and libraries. But Pai would not commit to not cutting E-rate funding, ditto for Carr. Rosenworcel said if it were up to her, the funds would not be cut.

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.