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Wheeler takes final bow, Rosenworcel to exit stage right

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Wheeler takes final bow, Rosenworcel to exit stage right

Timing is everything, especially at the FCC.

Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said Dec. 15 that he would step down from the agency when President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office, leaving only one question: Why didn't he say so sooner?

For months, Republican leaders in Congress have suggested the reconfirmation of Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel hinged on Wheeler pledging to step down after the election. The chairman, though, repeatedly declined to give a straight answer on the subject.

At the commission's November open meeting, for instance, Wheeler only said, "I don't have any news on my departure date."

Now, Wheeler's Dec. 15 pledge seems like too little, too late — at least in terms of Rosenworcel's reconfirmation. The Senate concluded its business for the year Dec. 10, and all that remains on the Senate's calendar at this point is a brief pro forma session scheduled for Dec. 16.

While it is technically possible that Rosenworcel could get reconfirmed through a vote on unanimous consent, such a feat seems highly unlikely. Assuming she is not reconfirmed, Rosenworcel will have to leave the agency at the end of the year.

Given that, Wheeler was repeatedly asked at a Dec. 15 press conference why he did not announce his planned departure sooner.

SNL Image
FCC Commissioners Ajit Pai, Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, Jessica Rosenworcel, Michael O'Rielly
Source: FCC

According to the chairman, his impending exit should never have been in question. He referred to a March Senate hearing where he committed to assisting the transition team of the next president and adhering to tradition.

"That is what I have done. I am keeping my commitment. I have always said that is what I would do," Wheeler said.

He also acknowledged, however, that at the time of the Senate hearing, he had expected a different result from the U.S. presidential election.

"I had hoped for another outcome," he said. "But the American people decided that they wanted something else and I stuck with my commitment."

Had Hillary Clinton won the election instead of Trump, it was widely expected Wheeler would stay on as chairman at the FCC on an interim basis. This would have given Wheeler a few extra months to move forward on some of his larger initiatives, including the set-top box proceeding.

Much like Rosenworcel's reconfirmation at this point, Wheeler's set-top box proposal seems destined to whither on the vine.

"I'm very disappointed that the rules did not make it through," Wheeler said of the rulemaking, which would have required any pay TV provider with more than 400,000 subscribers to offer a free app as an alternative to leased set-top boxes.

"I have lost my Windex bottle, so my crystal ball is not very clear. I'm not sure where it goes," Wheeler said of the proposal.

But as to Rosenworcel's fate, Wheeler said key Republicans knew for months he would step down if it meant getting Rosenworcel reconfirmed.

Specifically, Wheeler referred to a "private conversation" with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

"I told him I would step down," Wheeler said of the conversation.

Rosenworcel has close connections to the Senate Commerce Committee, as she previously served as the group's senior communications counsel prior to joining the FCC. And in December 2015, long before the stalemate over re-appointment had hardened into stone, the Commerce Committee, under Thune's leadership, unanimously approved her reconfirmation.

Wheeler also suggested a public commitment to leaving would not have helped his fellow Democrat one whit, as Republican leaders were holding out for the chance of a 2-1 Republican majority at the FCC.

Specifically, Wheeler referred to comments made by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who told Politico this month that he "supports efforts to ensure a 2-1 Republican majority at the FCC so that we can begin to roll back the burdensome regulations it recently issued."

With Rosenworcel and Wheeler both leaving, a 2-1 majority is exactly what Republicans will have.

For her part, Rosenworcel seemed to accept the Dec. 15 FCC meeting was her last. Speaking toward the meeting's close, she made her goodbyes.

"Change is coming. But here is what won't change, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to work with all of you," she said.

In other news from the commission, the FCC voted unanimously on Dec. 15 to amend its rules to allow phone companies to replace support for an outdated form of text communications, known as TTY, with support for real-time text, which allows characters to be sent as they are created without hitting "send."

The change will eliminate the need for consumers who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind or who have a speech disability to purchase expensive and hard-to-find specialized text devices.