The Known Unknowns of the FCC Transition

By Lydia Beyoud and Kyle Daly

President-elect Donald Trump’s three-member Federal Communications Commission transition team has been meeting with commissioners’ offices and designation FCC staff but participants are staying mum about meeting details.

Trump’s FCC transition team includes Jeffrey Eisenach, Mark Jamison and Roslyn Layton, all economists affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute. They met with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s office Dec. 13 as well as the FCC’s transition directors, Michele Ellison in the Office of General Council and Mindy Ginsburg from the Office of the Managing Director, agency officials told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 14.

Trump’s representatives also met with Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn on Dec. 13, a Clyburn aide confirmed. Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai and Democrat Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s offices declined to comment. Republican Michael O’Rielly’s office and the Trump transition team did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s unclear whether Trump’s agency landing team or the broader transition structure resembles prior transitions between administrations. The current transition process may not resemble the structure or approach taken by the Obama administration during its transition into power, Kevin Werbach, a technology analyst and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told Bloomberg BNA. Werbach and Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford led President Barack Obama’s FCC transition team in 2008 and 2009.

Generally, the focus of an FCC transition team revolves around key issues or open proceedings before the commission, personnel decisions, and broad agenda-setting and policy development for the next administration, Werbach said. However, each transition is different, and one should be cautious about generalizing too much about them, he said.

“This is a transition that’s being done much more in real time than the one under President Obama was,” Werbach said.

In 2009, the incoming Obama administration announced the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform (TIGR) Team. It’s unclear whether the broader Trump transition team includes a such a policy working group to collaborate on future policy decisions. A Trump transition representative didn’t respond to a question about whether the current transition includes such a team.

Obama’s team included Julius Genachoswki, who became Obama’s first FCC chairman, and Blair Levin, an influential Obama policy adviser and creator of the 2010 National Broadband Plan, as well as other representatives from industry, transition members and government groups. Wheeler led the Obama transition team for science, tech, space and the arts.

Harold Feld, senior vice president at public interest group Public Knowledge, told Bloomberg BNA that the Trump transition would benefit from such a policy group.

“It’s unfortunate if we’re reverting back to a model which is very much about looking at your own little fiefdom and not looking at trying to have broader, more efficient use of government and government agencies,” he said.

Staff Reshuffling

Pai is widely rumored in telecom policy circles to be on deck to become FCC chairman, at least on an interim basis, once Trump is sworn in. It’s unclear whether any of the three agency landing team members might receive official appointments to the FCC or elsewhere in the administration.

The FCC is likely facing broader staff changes. Political appointees to the agency typically leave with a change in administration. Wheeler has so far declined to say if or when he will depart, but he’s widely expected to step down from the agency when Trump takes office. Much of Wheeler’s staff is expected to do the same; top aide Gigi Sohn announced in November that she’s leaving at the end of this year to become a fellow at the Open Society Foundations.

It’s unclear at this point if rank-and-file FCC personnel will follow suit. Career agency staffers tend to stay on through a transition of power. But Pai and fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly have spoken at length about aiming to roll back many of the Wheeler FCC’s initiatives.

Former Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was at the agency during the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations and served as interim chairman for roughly the first six months of Obama’s first term. Copps “wouldn’t be terribly surprised,” he told Bloomberg BNA, if a number of staffers who worked on Wheeler-led efforts like the agency’s 2015 net neutrality rules opted to leave the agency rather than undo their own work.

But it may be some time before the full impact of the change in administrations on the FCC’s staff makeup is clear. Multiple telecom industry sources told Bloomberg BNA they don’t believe there will be enough open jobs in Washington for all the commission staff who may be looking for a change. Facing an incoming Republican administration, people who spent the last several years crafting a Democratic-controlled FCC’s policies against GOP objections may find jobs especially scarce, one person said. Any major change in the FCC’s overall staff composition would likely come in a slow trickle rather than a mass exodus, sources said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com; Kyle Daly in Washington at kdaly@bna.com

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

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