President Obama is expected to nominate Tom Wheeler, veteran telecom industry exec and lobbyist to Chair the FCC. The FCC has broad regulatory powers over the nation’s telecommunications industry, effecting television, wireless and internet services. Wheeler has headed powerful lobbying groups for both the cable television and wireless industries. The nomination is a clear break from promises Obama made on the campaign trail.
While campaigning for office in 2008, Barack Obama railed on the influence of lobbyists in Washington and promised they wouldn’t influence his Administration. Soon after taking office, President Obama signed an executive order spelling out that lobbyists wouldn’t be allowed to “work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years.”
Wheeler won’t just be working on regulations, he will have an outsized role in writing them and even deciding which regulations to pursue. His nomination is a potential boon for the cable and wireless industries, whose lobbying efforts Wheeler managed.
“I am skeptical that the former chief lobbyist of the wireless and cable industries will be capable of holding his former clients accountable for their ongoing shortcomings,” said Sascha Meinrath, head of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation think tank.
Wheeler’s nomination is a rejection of Senate Democrats, who urged Obama to nominate current FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel as Chair. Rosenworcel was a long-time aide to Sen. Jay Rockefeller and would have been the first female Chair of the FCC. Thirty-six Senate Democrats sent the White House a letter, supporting her nomination.
This letter, however, was followed by one from the tech industry supporting Wheeler. The letter included several prominent Obama supporters. Wheeler himself was active in Obama’s campaigns and was a bundler of campaign contributions, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama.
It is very unusual for so many Senators to publicly urge a particular nominee. The strong show of support for Rosenworcel virtually ensured a smooth confirmation process. The simple rejection of this instance of the Senate’s “advise and consent” function itself could complicate Wheeler’s confirmation.
It is another example of President Obama insisting on going his own way. Not only has he rejected the advice of his allies in the Senate, he has rejected his own executive order barring lobbyists from working on regulation. For Obama, these are mere guidelines and won’t preclude him putting loyalists into positions of power.