The Senate approved two Republicans as members of the Federal Communications Commission just before the agency shut down most of its operations Jan. 3. The FCC is the latest to go dark for lack of funding during the government shutdown. The partial shutdown comes as President Donald Trump refused to compromise on his request for $5 billion or more to fund a border wall with Mexico despite strong bipartisan support for several alternatives.
The FCC had just four commissioners, three of them Republicans, since a Democratic member resigned in April 2018. Brendan Carr, a Republican, had served the remainder of an existing commissioner’s term, and was approved for a full five-year term on Jan. 2. Geoffrey Starks, nominated as a Democratic member, was also confirmed Jan. 2. This restored a 3-2 split. The Senate confirmed the two unanimously by voice vote.
FCC Chair Ajit Pai has been a lightning rod for controversy during his tenure under Trump, leading a charge to reverse network neutrality rules set or enforced during the Obama Administration. Net neutrality provides a framework in which Internet service providers cannot throttle, block, or charge higher fees to shift traffic across their networks.
With Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives as of Jan. 3, Pai and the FCC face Democrat-led committees now empowered to demand documents, compel testimony, perform investigations, and release the results. They will join the New York Attorney General’s office, which in October 2018 escalated an existing investigation into how identities of New Yorkers were misused in net neutrality comments.
During the public-comment period for Pai’s net neutrality rules reversal in 2017, the FCC received millions of comments, a large number of which were generated automatically and many of which bore the names of non-existent or dead people or individuals who, when contacted, said they had made no such comment. One man who supported net neutrality was arrested for sending death threats to Pai.
Pai’s stance on the comments and the public response has varied, including claiming that its server was hacked, claiming it had also occurred in 2014. A former FCC chair said in June 2018 that Pai had outright lied about the 2014 outage.
In August 2018, Pai blamed the former FCC CIO for misinforming him about the 2018 outage. In December, he admitted in a statement that many of the comments were fraudulent.
The FCC also faces challenges that are less specifically politically fraught, such as approving T-Mobile’s proposal to acquire fourth-place U.S. carrier Sprint, a $26 billion deal; expanding access in rural areas to high-speed broadband; and addressing early-stage rollouts of so-called 5G, or fifth-generation cellular technology, which ultimately promises far higher data speeds even in dense urban areas.