As FCC Chief’s Term Nears End, Speculation Grows Over Possible Successor

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Sean Gardner / REUTERS

Julius Genachowski, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, addresses attendees during the International CTIA WIRELESS Conference & Exposition in New Orleans, Louisiana May 8, 2012.

On June 30th, Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski’s five-year term will expire, which has led to speculation that Genachowski might soon announce his departure. Although the FCC chair is not a cabinet-level position, D.C. chatter is already flying fast and furious about Genachowski’s replacement, because the FCC holds broad regulatory power over the most important media, communications, and technology companies in the United States.

There is particular focus on Genachowski’s future in part because his term at the FCC has been so contentious. Throughout his tenure, he has tried to thread a centrist needle on issues like broadband policy, industry competition, and media consolidation. In doing so, he has managed to annoy almost every constituency, from public interest groups that have pushed for a more activist FCC, to industry giants who have bristled at some of his decisions.

For example, Genachowski’s decision to approve Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal dismayed media reform advocates. On the other side of the ledger, his rejection of AT&T’s proposed purchase of T-Mobile infuriated AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. One might say that the fact that he’s displeased two historically opposed forces — public interest groups and industry titans — suggests that he’s actually done a relatively balanced job, but there is no doubt that he is not the most popular official in Washington, D.C.

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Whoever serves as the next FCC chairman — whether it’s Genachowski or someone else — will confront a host of difficult issues. The agency is currently preparing for a complex wireless spectrum auction next year. The FCC is also weighing new rules regarding media ownership. And the agency faces a closely-watched legal challenge over its authority to enforce its “Open Internet” rules. Meanwhile, the FCC still has a lot of work to do to help improve broadband speed, service, and competition in the United States. In short, the FCC chairman has a crucially important and difficult government job, which is why it’s vital that the public be informed about the future of the agency and its leadership.

A spokesman for the FCC declined to comment on Genachowski’s plans, but in an interview with CNBC last November, Genachowski said he has “no plans to go anywhere.” (It’s theoretically possible that President Obama might renominate Genachowski, and as a matter of law, he can remain in office until the current Congress wraps up at the end of next year.) Last month, Genachowski again brushed aside questions about his future. But that hasn’t stopped speculation about Genachowski’s plans, as well as the makeup of the FCC going forward.

For months, D.C. policy insiders have been circulating a list of possible replacements, and in recent weeks that list has narrowed. The candidates under discussion aren’t household names, so it’s worth a quick look at each of the figures who might eventually lead this critical federal agency. After 80 years of male leadership, many people hope that Obama appoints a woman as the next FCC chair, although that is by no means certain.

The first three people listed below are on the short-list and most likely to end up with the job, according to several top D.C. policy sources. The others are names that have been previously discussed, but are considered less likely to be nominated. (This article is based on a dozen interviews with D.C. policy experts, several of whom were granted anonymity so they would speak candidly.)

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The short-list.
Tom Wheeler: A veteran telecom policy expert and entrepreneur, Wheeler is currently the front-runner. He has “nearly three decades of working at the forefront of telecommunications policy and business development,” according to his bio at D.C.-based venture capital firm Core Capital Partners, where he is now managing director. Well-known and well-liked in D.C., Wheeler has been a key Obama ally and fundraiser, and walked door-to-door for the candidate in Iowa. Later, during the Obama-Biden 2009 transition, he was responsible for science, technology, space, and arts agencies.

Earlier in his career, Wheeler served as an influential lobbyist, first as president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), and later as CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), so he has deep industry experience and connections. The author of two books, Wheeler “has a historian’s perspective,” according to a former FCC official.

Karen Kornbluh: Currently President Obama’s Ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Kornbluh is a well-respected official who has been at Obama’s side since his days in the U.S. Senate. Although she has operated largely behind the scenes, her influence on Obama’s policies has been so significant that she has been called Obama’s “brain.” Like Wheeler, Kornbluh has a direct line to President Obama.

In the mid-1990s, Kornbluh served in various roles at the FCC, so she has a telecom policy background. Equally adept at policy and politics, Kornbluh is said to be mounting a serious campaign for the job. “She’s smart,” says one D.C. insider, “and she’s not going to upset the apple cart.” Kornbluh is considered a top candidate due to her close relationship with Obama, as well as her expertise in telecom policy.

Larry Strickling: An early Obama loyalist, Strickling currently serves as Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the executive branch agency that advises the president on telecom policy. A former senior official at the FCC, Strickling has been closely involved in several major Obama administration broadband initiatives, including the development of a $4 billion Recovery Act broadband grant program.

A well-respected Chicago lawyer, Strickling spent several years in the 1990s as vice president for public policy at Ameritech, at the time one of several regional Bell operating companies and now a subsidiary of AT&T. Says a former FCC official: “He’s the best lawyer among the top candidates and he knows the policy details.”

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Other names under discussion.
Jason FurmanCurrently Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Principal Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, Furman is a well-known economist with a reputation as a White House centrist. Furman is closely associated with Larry Summers and Robert Rubin, whom he worked for in the Clinton White House. In the past, he has garnered criticism from some liberal groups for his views on globalization and Wal-Mart’s labor policies.

Furman has also worked at the World Bank, the Brookings Institution, and served as Director of Economic Policy for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Furman is considered a “brilliant” economic policy mind, especially on taxes, but his relative lack of telecom policy experience is worrisome to some in the public interest community.

Mignon Clyburn: A FCC commissioner since 2009, Mignon Clyburn is the daughter of Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC). Clyburn served for 11 years as the representative of South Carolina’s sixth district on the Public Service Commission of South Carolina. Prior to that, she spent 14 years as publisher of The Coastal Times, a Charleston-based weekly newspaper focused primarily on issues affecting the African-American community.

If Genachowski does step down, Clyburn would become the most senior Democrat on the commission. And as an African-American woman, she would be a ground-breaking choice to lead an agency that has only been led by men over the course of its 80-year history. Look for Clyburn to become acting chair of the FCC for a few months if Genachowski steps down.

Jessica Rosenworcel: Another current FCC commissioner, Rosenworcel was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate last year. Last year, Politico named her one of 50 politicos to watch, and reported that she “is said to be on the shortlist to become the commission’s next head honcho.” Rosenworcel has FCC experience, having served as legal advisor to former FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, among other FCC positions. “She’s one of the smartest people to ever hold this job in terms of command of the policy details,” according to a top D.C. policy source.

Rosenworcel previously worked for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat, as senior communications counsel for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Rosenworcel knows Congress, which is important. But Rosenworcel would have to vault over Clyburn, who has more seniority on the FCC. And her main congressional patron, Sen. Rockefeller, is retiring.

Cathy Sandoval: A respected lawyer and professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, Sandoval currently serves on the California Public Utilities Commission, where she is the first Latina to hold such a position in its over-100 year history. During the Clinton Administration, Sandoval served at the FCC, where she “worked tirelessly to promote opportunities for small businesses in the communications industry, including those owned by minorities and women,” former FCC Chairman William Kennard said when she departed the agency.

An expert on communications law, Sandoval has impeccable academic credentials, including degrees from Yale, Oxford, and Stanford Law School, and was the first Hispanic woman to win a Rhodes Scholarship.

Susan Crawford: Beloved by public interest groups and feared by industry giants, Crawford has been the subject of an intense campaign for the top FCC job by her supporters. A tech policy expert and professor at Cardozo Law School, Crawford is the author of the new book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Guilded Age, in which she criticizes the federal government for allowing cable and telecom giants — particularly Comcast — to grow too powerful, stifling competition.

Crawford is widely admired for her courage in taking on one of the most powerful industries in the United States, but her candidacy is anathema to deep-pocketed cable and telecom giants who fear she will push for increased government regulation. Even some in the public interest community acknowledge that she is a long-shot for FCC chair. “Susan would be fantastic, but she has no chance,” says a top D.C. source.

Although the FCC is not a high-profile cabinet department like State, Justice, or Defense, its broad regulatory authority over huge swaths of the U.S. economy makes it a very powerful government agency. And as the Internet continues to transform American media and communications, leadership of the agency will only become more important. The Internet has now become central to the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans, not to mention the largest U.S. media, communications and technology companies. Genachowski certainly hasn’t pleased everyone, but he has succeeded in making broadband Internet access a key national priority. Genachowski’s successor will be tasked with building upon his legacy to ensure that American businesses and workers have the tools they need to ensure U.S. competitiveness in the 21st century.