Ajit Pai is hardly an outsider in Washington policy circles. He has been in DC nearly 20 years, serving in a broad array of government and private-sector positions, including multiple stints at the Justice Department, on the Hill, and on the staff of the Federal Communications Commission. Since 2012, he has been one of five members of the FCC. The resume sounds like that of the stereotypical insider so reviled in the 2016 campaign.
Yet this week, President Trump selected Pai to be chairman of the 83-year old regulatory agency. As a sitting commissioner, appointment as chairman needs no further Senate confirmation, and was effective immediately.
The choice was an excellent one. Despite his resume, Pai has never really joined the get-along to go-along Washington establishment set. Instead, since becoming a commissioner in 2012, Pai (along with fellow GOP commissioner Michael O’Rielly), has consistently rung the alarm bells against the FCC’s increasing control over telecommunications and the Internet.
Most notably, Pai led the charge against the FCC’s net neutrality, or “open Internet” rules, under which the commission claimed authority to regulate Internet providers, stunting innovation and investment in the most dynamic industry on the planet. His efforts ranged from filing detailed dissents articulating the flaws in the proposed regulation, to raising awareness of the FCC danger through the media and - yes - tweets.
After the 2015 FCC vote to impose regulation, and a June decision by a federal court upholding the FCC’s rules, it looked like Pai’s efforts had been for naught. Even worse, net-neutrality advocates were busily working to apply the new rules to other practices by Internet providers, such as “sponsored data” plans that allow carriers to limit data charges to consumers for using their wireless devices. The elevation of Pai to the top job at the FCC puts the issue into play once more. And with the help of a newly established GOP-majority among the commissioners, the repeal of the 2015 rules seems likely.
While neutrality rules have dominated the FCC’s agenda in recent years, it is hardly the only issue facing Chairman Pai and the rest of the commission. A plethora of other controversies have buffeted the FCC. These have ranged from regulation of television, to imposition of mandatory privacy rules, to out-of-control telecommunications subsidies. As chairman, Pai will now have a chance to stop the expansion of the FCC’s interference in these markets as well. Of course, the challenges facing any FCC go beyond economic controls. For much of its history, the agency has been a willing suppressor of content and speech itself. In the recent past, otherwise pro-market chairmen have worked to increase controls on content, albeit through indecency rules, rather than control on political expression. And presidents of both parties – including the current one – have urged the commission to use its powers against critics. Pai, or any new chairman, must make clear this is not the FCC’s role.
The biggest question that Chairman Pai will have to answer isn’t whether the FCC should expand its footprint in this or that area. In today’s world, the areas where increased government control over communications is justified are vanishingly small. The larger issue is whether there is any need for an FCC at all. More than ever, competition is flourishing in the communications world. And if there are problems, broad-based agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission stand ready and able to do the job.
With change taking place across Washington, there is no better time to think the once unthinkable: a sunset of the FCC. And who better to start the process than the “insider” Ajit Pai?
This piece originally appeared in The Hill