How Long Will Sen. Ted Cruz Keep The FCC On Hold?
As the U.S. Senate returns to work Monday after a one week recess, the question hanging over the communications industry is when President Obama’s nominee to chair the FCC, Thomas Wheeler, will get to work on a number of important issues held up until he is confirmed.
Wheeler sailed through the Commerce Committee approval and seemed certain to win full Senate approval until Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) put the confirmation vote on hold. Cruz is demanding an answer from Wheeler about whether the FCC will push through rules mandating transparency by big money political donors when advocacy ads run on broadcast TV.
Cruz’s hold also effectively delays the confirmation of former Senate aide Michael O'Rielly, the Republican nominee for the FCC, as well. At present the commission has an acting chairwoman and only three (of five) members, which is the reason some issues are stacked up until the commission is at full strength.
Those include rules related to the voluntary auction by TV stations of some of their broadcast spectrum; net neutrality and rules for an open Internet; TV station ownership rules; how to manage the transition of legacy phone networks into the digital era; and much more.
Wheeler has twice answered Cruz’s question, in writing, but the Senator is still not satisfied; and now the two are reportedly going to meet for further discussions.
This is not the way the process usually works, says Michael Copps, who from 2001 through 2011 was a FCC commissioner himself. “Expecting a specific answer as to how he is going to deal with that is expecting too much from the nomination process,” Copps tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He is asking for commitments which are better left to deliberations when (the nominee) gets to the commission.”
“As a matter of general principal,” explains Copps, “the nomination process is supposed to look at the character of an individual, get a general idea of his philosophy of regulation, talk in terms of general principles and judge his or her qualifications to serve the public interest and run an agency according to the mandate that Congress has given the agency.”
Copps confirmed that it is unusual – but not necessarily unprecedented - for a Senator to demand the incoming chairman state a position on an issue that hasn’t even come before the commission and may never be presented at the FCC.
Cruz, a first term Senator who has support from the conservative Tea Party wing of the GOP, famously filibustered Sept. 25 against Obamacare, helping trigger the government shutdown.
Now he is taking on the FCC, demanding that the commission not push through a version of the Disclosure Act, which Democrats introduced in Congress twice – only to be defeated both times – that would apply to all broadcast television stations (but not cable TV or the Internet, which the FCC by law can’t regulate).
Cruz’s concern is the FCC will use its power to force disclosure of the identities of those who donate large sums of money for political ads that are booked by committees separate from candidates. These committees have become a major factor in American politics since the Citizen United Supreme Court ruling in 2010, which opened the door to nearly unlimited political contributions by so-called independent committees.
Wheeler has twice provided Cruz with written responses to his question – promising to give the matter serious consideration - and twice Cruz has indicated it is not acceptable. He wants a specific answer.
In a statement issued Oct. 17 a spokesman for Cruz stated: “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. 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.”
There was no response to requests for additional information from the Senator or his staff.