Senate Sees Red After Midterm Rout

WASHINGTON — Republicans have taken back the Senate for the first time since George W. Bush was president, but not with the two-thirds majority that would allow them to block the FCC’s reimposition of network-neutrality rules.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, will continue to set the agency’s agenda, but there will almost certainly be more pushback from the Hill.

“The FCC is an independent agency and [Wheeler] is an aggressive guy, so he’ll do what he thinks is best,” said a top communications lawyer who asked not to be named.

The Republicans will be picking the chairmen on Senate committees overseeing communications, setting a more deregulatory agenda, scheduling hearings and able to launch investigations, issue subpoenas and otherwise make it tougher on policies and agencies they disagree with.

It was unclear whether the total Senate seat count for the GOP would be 53 or 54. That will be determined by a run-off in Louisiana, where the Republican, Bill Cassidy, is predicted to oust incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. That will mean even more political ad money spent in the run-up to the runoff next month.

The Republicans held the House, and picked up at least a dozen seats (“GOP Ready to Lead Victory 2014” T-shirts were being hawked on the RNC Web site). Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R- Mich.), Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and ranking Communications Subcommittee member Anna Eshoo (DCalif.), all won re-election handily. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, is retiring.

Fresh from those convincing victories in their respective House races, Upton and Walden outlined their priorities for the new Congress, which includes beginning the rewrite of telecommunications law, though again that would need to be legislation that President Obama would not veto, assuming it passed before he exits in 2016.

Not returning is Rep. Terry Lee (R-Neb.) a prominent member of the House Communications Subcommittee. He lost to Democrat Brad Ashford. His seat was thought to be in danger before the election, but it was one of the few setbacks for the Republicans.

On the Senate side, change and lots of it is in the offing. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) is retiring and his seat was won by Republican Shelley Moore Capito, one of the pickups that helped the GOP take the Senate. Communications Subcommittee chairman Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) was also defeated by Republican Tom Cotton, yet another of those key seat switches.

Pryor and Rockefeller had pushed for retransmission-consent reform as part of the satellite reauthorization bill, though ultimately recognizing that would hold up the must-pass measure.

Rockefeller’s retirement and Pryor’s defeat also takes two senators off the committee who were focused on content issues, such as media violence.

With Rockefeller and Pryor gone, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) could become a more prominent figure on the Commerce Committee. He is former chair of the House Communications (formerly Telecommunications) Subcommittee, and has been among the more active legislators on communications issues, including network-neutrality regulations — he favors common-carrier regulations based on Title II of the Telecommunications Act — media consolidation and online privacy.

Open Internet rules will continue to have another strong champion in Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), though no longer from the bully pulpit of a chairmanship.

Franken won far more handily than last time around. According to the Minnesota unofficial returns, the Saturday Night Live writer-turned-politican won by about 200,000 votes. In 2008, after months-long recounts and a state Supreme Court decision, Franken won by 312 votes.

Tale of the Tape in Senate Commerce

Who’s in and out following the midterm elections:

Retired: Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.).

Lost: Communications Subcommittee chairman Mark Pryor (D-Ark.)

Undetermined: Mark Begich (D-Alaska) *

Won: Cory Booker (D-N.J.)

Won: Tim Scott (R-S.C.) **

Won: Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.)

Won: Ed Markey (D-Mass.)

Won: Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii)

* Begich was behind by a little over 8,000 votes but had not conceded at press time with absentee ballots still to be counted.

** First black senator elected from the South since reconstruction.

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.