Cruz Missile Threatens Wheeler Nod

WASHINGTON — There’s little chance a vote on the Federal Communications Commission nominees-in-waiting will come until at least Oct. 28, after the Senate returns from a week of home visits, if even then.

That’s because Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), having failed to block Obamacare, last week turned his attention to FCC chairman-designate Tom Wheeler. Cruz signaled he would hold up Wheeler’s confirmation — and effectively the nomination of Republican commission nominee Michael O’Rielly — after blocking a fast-track attempt to vote both appointments.

“The senator is holding the nominee until he gets answers to his questions regarding Mr. Wheeler’s views on whether the FCC has the authority or intent to implement the requirements of the failed Congressional DISCLOSE Act,” a Cruz aide said last week. “Mr. Wheeler had previously declined to give specific answers, but as he’s now expressed his readiness to revisit the Senator’s questions, the Senator hopes to communicate with him soon.”

Cruz has been signaling for weeks that he was unlikely to let the nomination proceed without that answer. On the same night that the Senate and House voted to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, senators on both sides of the aisle attempted to fast-track a confirmation vote for both Wheeler, a Democrat, and O’Rielly, but it did not pan out, thanks to Cruz.

There was an attempt to “hotline” the votes, which means that unless one or more senators object, the nominations are approved by unanimous consent and without the need for a roll-call vote. But Cruz, the leading figure in the shutdown impasse, did object, which meant the Dems were not going to approve Republican O’Rielly, according to industry sources. O’Rielly was affirmatively discharged from the committee by unanimous consent, which means both he and Wheeler now need only a full Senate vote for confirmation, though a single senator — like Cruz — can hold up that vote indefinitely.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, said he was pleased that some nominees were confirmed but disappointed that “several other highly qualified nominees were blocked,” he told Multichannel News in an email. “We need to get the government functioning as a whole again ... If the government is going to fully function for the American people, we have to get these highly qualified nominees confirmed now.”

Cruz had threatened to put a hold on the Wheeler nomination unless he got a better answer on whether Wheeler thought the FCC had the au thority “to implement the DISCLOSE Act or otherwise regulate political speech.” Some Capitol Hill Democrats have pushed the FCC to step in to boost on-air disclosures of ads by PACs and other groups.

Wheeler told Cruz at the hearing and in a written follow-up request that the congressman needs to learn more about the issue, and pointed out that a proceeding is open, so he is limited as to what he can say. Cruz was not satisfied, leading to last week’s long-telegraphed hold on the Wheeler nomination.

Wheeler was unavail able for comment on how he might answer differently this time around.

Back in Business, Sort of

WASHINGTON — It may still be short-handed at only three of five commissioners, but the Federal Communications Commission began to reopen late last week after 16 days of skeleton staffing and a shuttered website.

The agency suspended all filing deadlines that fell during those 16 days, and extended them until Oct. 21, with the exception of network outage reports.

The FCC will need to once again process applications, review new technology, vet mergers and station sales, and figure out just how it will require cable operators to make onscreen guides accessible to the visually impaired.

Why didn’t the FCC keep its website open during the government shutdown, as did some other agencies?

The FCC had no official comment, but a source on background said it did not have the carryover funds to maintain the site, as did at least two other government agencies they were familiar with that kept sites accesible.

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.