The Surprising Backers of Obama's FCC Pick

Brian Fung

It's official: Obama has just nominated Tom Wheeler to be America's next top telecom regulator. Wheeler, a former wireless and cable lobbyist, might on paper be seen as a boon to industry and a blow to public-interest groups. The fear among critics is that Wheeler's ties to big business could threaten consumers. But in fact, the battle lines on Wheeler's confirmation process aren't hardening in a predictable way at all.

Consumer advocates themselves are somewhat divided on the pick. On Tuesday, Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation said he was "skeptical" of Wheeler's ability to "[hold] his former clients accountable." At the same time, a number of high-profile influentials have spoken out in Wheeler's favor -- including Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardozo Law School who was said to be in the running for FCC chair herself.

Crawford often finds herself at odds with industry in her role as an outspoken defender of consumers, making the split among public-interest groups all the more noteworthy. But Gigi Sohn, the president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, said Wheeler's left-wing critics simply don't know him well enough and that he's intent on being more than just a "traffic cop" at the FCC.

"They've never worked with Tom Wheeler," said Sohn. "They're just going off his resume. And I just don't think a resume tells you everything."

Sohn was quick to downplay the divide among consumer advocacy groups, but as a parting shot drew comparisons between Wheeler and sitting commissioner Mignon Clyburn, whom many initially opposed over her ties to AT&T and her father, Rep. Jim Clyburn.

"We were convinced she was going to be a shill for Amazon and an AT&T toadie," said Sohn. "We assumed the worst about Clyburn and we were totally wrong."

Obama's decision also sets up a theoretical confrontation with Senate Democrats, who rallied not behind Wheeler but behind a sitting commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel. Last month, Commerce Committee chairman Sen. John Rockefeller and dozens of his colleagues sent a letter to the president recommending Rosenworcel for the top FCC post. Yet there, too, Wheeler's name brings with it a sense of inevitability. Despite both the opportunity and a motive for making Wheeler's confirmation a difficult process, Rockefeller isn't likely to stand in the way.

"The lobbying stuff was a little overhyped," said a top Senate aide. "Rather than just making handshakes and deals, he actually grew the industry. Every candidate for the job had their own advocates, but it's up to the president to decide what he wants to do."