Biden Still Hasn't Picked An FCC Boss, But He Just Tagged A Comcast Lobbyist As Ambassador To Canada
from the priorities priorities dept
Consumer groups have grown increasingly annoyed at the Biden administration’s failure to pick a third Democratic Commissioner and permanent FCC boss six months into his term. After the rushed Trump appointment of unqualified Trump BFF Nathan Simington to the agency (as part of that dumb and now deceased plan to have the FCC regulate social media), the agency now sits gridlocked at 2-2 commissioners under interim FCC head Jessica Rosenworcel.
While the FCC can still putter along tackling its usual work on spectrum and device management, the gridlock means it can’t do much of anything controversial, like reversing Trump-era attacks on basic telecom consumer protections, media consolidation rules, or the FCC’s authority to hold telecom giants accountable for much of, well, anything. If you’re a telecom giant like AT&T or Comcast, a gridlocked agency remains a policy gift.
It will take months to appoint and seat a third commissioner and permanent FCC boss. It will take additional months to get that person settled in place to even start working on serious policy proposals. In other words, by the time the FCC is fully staffed, a full year may have been wasted that could have been spent on tackling the not insubstantial problems in the telecom space. While Biden certainly has been aggressive on other fronts (appointing Lina Khan head of the FTC), fixing the mess in telecom clearly hasn’t been a top priority.
What has been more of a priority? Appointing former Comcast lobbyist David Cohen to the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, apparently. Cohen held the very first fundraising dinner for Biden’s Presidential campaign back in 2019, and has now been amply rewarded for his loyalty:
“Biden has nominated David Cohen, a former senior executive vice president at NBCUniversal owner Comcast, to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Canada. Cohen is currently a senior advisor to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.”
Comcast historically gets very angry when you call Cohen a lobbyist, despite the fact he spearheaded the company’s lobbying and policy efforts for the better part of the last decade. After the U.S. updated its feeble lobbying rules in 2007 to require lobbyists to register if they spent any more than 20% of their time lobbying, Comcast simply called what Cohen did…something else. More specifically the company’s “Chief Diversity Officer,” despite Cohen’s actual lack of any, you know, diversity. Cohen was a huge architect of gaining government approval of Comcast’s massive 2011 merger with NBC Universal.
Making an aging telecom retiree and loyal fundraiser happy in his twilight years certainly isn’t the end of the world. But it’s still not a great look when you’ve prioritized rewarding telecom lobbyists over properly staffing the agency that oversees telecom.
Previous FCC boss Ajit Pai spent four years studying how the FCC worked as a Commissioner, then when appointed agency Chairman by Trump, set about using that knowledge to ruthlessly dismantle not just consumer protections, but state and federal oversight of telecom in general. Usually, Pai operated in perfect symmetry with large regional telecom monopolies like AT&T and Comcast, embracing some extremely ruthless behavior along the way. Reversing those policies requires a certain level of urgency from team Biden that so far really hasn’t been particularly apparent.
How tough Biden will be on telecom remains an open question. While his executive order contained some interesting promises, most can’t be accomplished without a properly staffed FCC, or an agency head with a backbone. I can still see things going either way here. I can see him appointing a tougher, Lina-Khan esque type interested in genuine reform. But I can also see him making a safe pick that chirps all the right notes (5G is great! damn that digital divide!) but, like so many in DC, isn’t willing to truly acknowledge monopolization and corruption are the primary causes of U.S. telecom dysfunction.