FCC's Wheeler Said to Stay into 2017 if Clinton Wins Election

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By Lydia Beyoud

July 20 — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler intends to stay in his job until the middle of next year if presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton wins the White House, multiple telecommunications industry sources told Bloomberg BNA.

Wheeler has avoided any public pronouncements about when he might leave the agency. FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart declined to comment. However, industry sources said the chairman has told telecommunications industry insiders privately about his plans for next year.

Staying until mid-2017 gives Wheeler a better shot at wrapping up several big-ticket agency initiatives, sealing his legacy as an activist chairman. Wheeler is hoping to finish several controversial agency proposals before he leaves the chairmanship, including rules impacting the business broadband market, broadband privacy related to his net neutrality rules and a complex auction to shift spectrum licenses from television broadcasters into the hands of mobile carriers hungry for more airwaves.

A mid-2017 time frame could also be just what a Clinton administration would prefer, several sources said.

Wheeler technically could serve out his full five-year commission term, which doesn't end until Nov. 3, 2018. That is not likely; according to conventional wisdom inside the Beltway, a Clinton loyalist is expected to take the helm of an agency that has grown from relative obscurity to playing a prominent policy role in the Obama administration.

Clinton issued a detailed tech and telecommunications policy platform on June 28 . Clinton outlined an ambitious plan to sustain and build upon core Obama policies such as net neutrality, broadband connectivity, attracting highly skilled immigrant workers and tech sector development. The plan also could be a signal that Clinton might want fresh blood at the FCC to lead the way on implementing her new policies.

However, keeping Wheeler in control of the FCC through the first months of 2017 would likely be the easiest situation for a Clinton administration, the sources said. It can take several months to decide on new appointments and, compared to cabinet-level positions and other senior posts, the FCC leader position is likely to be less of a priority.

Wheeler staying on through a transition period would provide Clinton with sufficient time to see her own nominee through the Senate approval process, the sources said.

If Wheeler were to depart early in 2017, it would force Clinton in the first months of the presidency to designate one of the remaining Democrats on the commission to serve as acting chair until new appointments can be confirmed, one of the former officials said.

Uncertain FCC Composition Under Trump

It's less clear what Wheeler might do should Republican nominee Donald J. Trump be elected. Two former FCC officials said they would expect Wheeler to resign before inauguration day on Jan. 20. That situation would be in keeping with the resignations of previous chairmen whose appointments would have stretched into the beginning of a new president of the opposite party.

Republican FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin's resignation took effect Jan. 20, 2009, the same day President Barack Obama was sworn into office, while Democrat William E. Kennard resigned Jan. 19, 2001, the day before former President George W. Bush took the oath of office.

Though the president has the power to designate a new chairman from among the five-member commissioners without the need for Senate approval, one of the former agency officials said they would not expect Wheeler to stay on as one of the other commissioners in a Trump administration.

Former FCC officials said Trump would likely pick a chairman from among the two current Republican commissioners, though added they were only speculating and didn't have personal knowledge of the Trump campaign's intentions on the matter.

Rosenworcel Wild Card

The political decisions being made by Wheeler, both parties, and the voters will have a big impact on the career of one of Wheeler's fellow Democratic commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel. Lawmakers departed Washington July 15 without having confirmed Rosenworcel to another term. If she isn't reconfirmed by the end of the year, she will have to leave the commission.

Telecom industry players from both parties respect Rosenworcel as a reasonable and capable commissioner. Still, Republican senators continue to block a Senate confirmation vote, partly in retaliation for policies enacted under Wheeler and the Obama administration, and partly as a political chess move.

The positioning at play in the run-up to the elections and the end of this year leave Rosenworcel's future uncertain until at least Election Day, sources said. Her fate after Nov. 8 depends as much on Wheeler as it does on which party controls the White House and Senate next year, the sources said.

If Rosenworcel is forced out by political gridlock, either Trump or Clinton would take office with a 2-2 split commission on their hands if Wheeler decided to stay on until the new president could appoint the next chairman.

On the other hand, if Trump wins, Rosenworcel isn't reconfirmed this year and Wheeler ends up resigning before Trump takes office, the commission would have a 2-1 Republican majority.

In any event, Republicans need Rosenworcel's seat vacant as insurance in case Trump wins the presidency and Wheeler decides to stay on the commission for a significant portion of what's left of his own term, one industry source said on background. Otherwise Republicans could end up in the minority at the commission despite controlling the White House.

Wheeler's presence on the commission into next year could be the death knell for Rosenworcel's tenure at the commission, that source said.

Others said the election could shake up the power structure in the Republican-held Senate enough for Democrats to move her renomination through in a lame-duck session.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been pushing for Rosenworcel to be reconfirmed, most recently on the Senate's last day in session before both parties left town for the Republican and Democratic conventions and summer vacation.

If Reid's party retains control of the White House—and especially if the Democrats retake the Senate—the Nevada Democrat may be able to make a final effort to kick Rosenworcel's reconfirmation over the goalpost before he retires from Congress at the end of the year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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