A Senate committee advanced the nominations Wednesday of three Trump administration Federal Communications Commission appointees, including one controversial vote to approve a Republican FCC nominee to two terms.
Senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee voted without objection to renominate former Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and nominate Brendan Carr, currently the agency’s general counsel and a former staffer in Republican Chairman Ajit Pai’s office.
Rosenworcel was forced to vacate her seat in December after Senate Republicans — concerned former Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler might not leave with the Obama administration — refused to vote on her renomination. Wheeler stepped down in January, as is customary in a new administration, and President Donald Trump nominated Carr to finish out his term ending in June 2018, giving the FCC a two-Democrat, three-Republican majority.
But Wednesday’s vote wasn’t without drama. Pai, also up for renomination, received mostly nay votes from Democrats over his pending plan to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules, scoring renomination thanks to the committee’s 14 Republican majority.
Consensus all but evaporated when Republicans proposed to nominate Carr to another term after finishing Wheeler’s in June 2018, upsetting the tradition of pairing one Democrat with one Republican at the same time, in order to pass them without objection from either side.
Beyond breaking precedent, Democrats argued that because Commissioner Mignon Clyburn — the FCC’s only sitting Democrat — is nearing the end of her term and hasn’t decided whether to seek renomination, Republicans should wait to renominate Carr until there’s a Democrat to pair with him.
“Otherwise Mr. Carr will have received a term that will run six and a half years,” Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey said. “There would be no one to pair the new Democratic nominee with, and it would create something that was ahistorical.”
Ranking Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida noted that Carr would still be able to serve after his term expires in June 2018 until January 2019, based on agency rules that let sitting commissioners stay until the end of the current congressional session if they haven’t been renominated.
“So if we got into a situation that suddenly, the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not want [to vote in a Democrat], and Mignon Clyburn vacated the seat, we would have a three to one [Republican to Democrat] when in fact, the commission is supposed to be three to two,” Nelson said.
The same situation happened last year when McConnell refused hold a floor vote to nominate Rosenworcel, who’d already been approved by the committee. At the time, Republicans blamed Wheeler’s reluctance to announce a firm departure date following Trump’s election win (some speculated Wheeler would stay on through the end of his term to block Trump’s ability to appoint a Republican majority at the agency).
Nelson added it was his understanding that McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are working on a deal to package multiple Trump nominees into a floor vote, and that Carr’s nomination for only a single term would be included.
“Clearly there is no precedent for a second term being this long, of which you would throw the entire balance of the FCC, for which it was intended, out of whack if the majority leader did not allow the second minority vacancy to be filled,” he said.
Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell said she was opposed to two terms because of Carr himself. During a hearing in July, Cantwell questioned if Carr would be willing to break from the influence of Pai, his former boss, on pivotal agency votes.
“Mr. Carr is a former staffer of Ajit Pai’s, I want to make sure that as he gets on the commission, that he’s going to express his independent views,” Cantwell said. “So I would like to talk to him again after some length of time on the FCC.”
“I don’t trust the guy,” Cantwell later remarked in a hot-mic moment.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who chairs the committee on commerce, argued that a Clinton FCC appointee was nominated to two terms in 1997. Markey later pointed out that nominee was paired with a Republican FCC appointee.
The committee voted 14-13 to approve Carr for two terms, with all Republicans voting for and all Democrats against.