The U.S. Federal Communications Commission could start 2019 still short at least one commissioner.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced a hold on Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr’s nomination for an additional term Dec. 13, citing the agency’s Dec. 7 announcement to delay funding disbursements from its program to bring mobile broadband to rural areas.
Carr, who has technically been serving out the remaining time on the term of former Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler, has been nominated by President Donald Trump for a full term through 2023, but is awaiting confirmation, along with Geoffrey Starks, a Democratic nominee to the commission. While Starks, like Carr, is awaiting confirmation, Carr continues to serve on the commission, giving the Republicans a 3-1 majority on the commission.
With Starks’ pending confirmation, the FCC is operating one seat short of its traditional five-seat body structure.
In a press release last week, the agency announced that it is investigating whether mobile carriers submitted incorrect coverage maps for the Mobility Fund Phase II program, which seeks to bring mobile broadband to rural areas that do not already receive government subsidies for the service. As part of its announcement, agency Chairman Ajit Pai announced that the program had been suspended until the investigation was concluded.
Some of the largest carriers, including AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc., submitted coverage area data.
The announcement did not sit well with Manchin, who agreed that the broadband maps were inaccurate, but criticized the agency for putting the funding release on hold.
"The answer is not to put the Mobility Fund on an indefinite hold that prevents states like West Virginia from receiving the funding they desperately need to deploy mobile broadband," he said in a Dec. 13 statement. "That’s why I am putting a hold on Brendan Carr’s nomination until FCC Chairman Ajit Pai can show me how states like West Virginia can access the broadband funding we need to close the digital divide."
Carr's term technically expired earlier this year, but he is allowed to stay on until the end of 2019 without being reconfirmed. If not confirmed by the end of 2019, he will be off the commission until he is reconfirmed.
While Manchin only specifically cited a hold on Carr’s nomination, the agency has historically confirmed nominees in pairs, meaning that Manchin’s action likely puts a hold on Starks’ nomination.
The Senate is especially unlikely to vote on one nominee without the other given that the last time they did not vote in tandem, it resulted in current Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel being forced to leave the commission until she was reconfirmed in August 2017.
According to Democrats at the time, former Sen. Harry Reid struck a deal in December 2014 whereby Democrats would confirm Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly immediately, with the understanding that Republicans would vote to reconfirm Rosenworcel before her first term ended in 2015.
While Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly was confirmed in December 2014, Rosenworcel was not confirmed for another term by the end of the congressional session in early 2017, causing her to leave the commission until reconfirmation in late summer of that year.
Manchin is not the first senator to put a hold on Carr’s nomination. In fact, Manchin's action appears to be part of an emerging trend of senators using the confirmation requirements associated with commissioners as a political tool to bargain for policy gains.
Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are also reportedly blocking the nominations of Carr and Starks over frustration with how the agency handled a broadband subsidy program for rural healthcare providers.
In July, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also reportedly postponed confirmation votes on Starks and Carr in an effort to create leverage for other nominees before the Senate.