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Rosenworcel Positions Herself to Be First FCC Female Chair

Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is making moves that suggest she has high hopes of being named permanent chief. They include her plans for a top-to-bottom review of items before the agency and appointment of a press secretary. Rosenworcel replied to congressional letters sent to her and had an international telecom discussion. Her agenda focused on moving forward on items begun under then-Chairman Ajit Pai and acting to implement congressional broadband relief.

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FCC officials told us Rosenworcel’s first month was exhausting for the eighth floor because of the tight deadline to get out rules for the $3.2 billion emergency broadband benefit program, released last week (see 2102260058). They expect the FCC to stay busy in the months ahead and Rosenworcel to plow into some new areas.

Rosenworcel is in a tough position, industry lawyers said. The last two acting chairs, former Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps, knew they weren’t up for the permanent job and could focus on a few issues. Copps' driving focus was the DTV transition. Clyburn worked on addressing high rates for prison calling, forcing a settlement on interoperability in the lower 700 MHz band and a few other issues important to her.

Rosenworcel is in the running for the top spot, with the White House unusually slow to make its intentions known. She must chart a careful course, pursuing an aggressive approach while making it clear she knows she's still only acting chair, experts said. And unlike the past two acting chairs, she doesn’t have a majority, given the current 2-2 split.

Rosenworcel "should wait” and only use the FCC chair’s full powers if Biden names her permanent chair, said Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss. He and other Senate Republicans oppose any effort to speed Democratic FCC nominees' confirmation (see 2012020069).

We want everybody [at the FCC] to exercise their ability to make policy and get things discussed,” and that includes Rosenworcel as acting chair, said Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in an interview. She and other Democrats want Biden to quickly name a permanent chair and fill the vacant FCC seat so they can secure a 3-2 majority (see 2102050064). There are still “a lot of discussions happening" within the Biden administration on potential FCC nominees, a sign there aren't likely to be any imminent announcements, Cantwell said.

Lengthening Tenure

The longer Rosenworcel stays acting chair, the more likely she will be the first woman to be permanent chair, observers said.

Senate Communications Subcommittee Chair Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., said Rosenworcel should use the FCC’s full powers now. He wants Biden to name Rosenworcel permanent chair (see 2102260047). Biden should feel a sense of “urgency” in naming both a permanent chair and a third FCC Democrat, given the implications of a shift in majority on issues like net neutrality, he said. Both roles “matter.” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said during a Fight for the Future virtual briefing Tuesday that he intends to “strongly urge” the FCC to “reverse” its earlier rescission of 2015 net neutrality rules once there’s a Democratic majority (see 2103020057).

Rosenworcel “has done extraordinary work" at the FCC, including “learning about the challenges that families face all over America,” Lujan said: As a Senate staffer, she “interacted on a daily basis with experts in developing legislation that has also contributed to closing the digital divide and addressing the many issues that exist at the FCC.”

Rosenworcel and her team are “highly capable individuals who realize the current political and legal landscape,” said former Commissioner Mike O’Rielly. “I would expect a fairly reasonable commission agenda for the near term as they deal with the cards that have been dealt.”

The “acting” part of Rosenworcel’s title is “operationally irrelevant,” said former Chairman Mark Fowler. “She has full authority to do everything that a normal chairman would do.” While it’s possible that an acting chair could be perceived as having less influence than the permanent officeholder, that’s likely not the case when the interim officeholder is seen as having a strong chance of getting the permanent job, as Rosenworcel is, he said. Fellow commissioners, staff and licensees know she could end up the permanent boss, so it's prudent for them to treat her as such, he said.

Challenges Ahead

Rosenworcel faces “the unusual challenge” of implementing the EBB program “on an extremely expedited schedule,” said Andrew Schwartzman, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society senior counselor. Copps as acting chair in 2009 "had the similar, if less existential, task of implementing the digital TV transition, having inherited a program that had not been especially well planned,” Schwartzman said. Rosenworcel “has very little room with which to maneuver in trying to get things done" because of the 2-2 tie.

That she’s undertaking meaningful matters while she is acting chair reflects her strengths as a candidate,” said Mintz’s Scott Thompson. “The longer the Biden administration drags its feet, the more it solidifies her as the permanent chair because the more opportunities she has to push her agenda,” said Phillips Lytle’s Joel Thayer: “At some point, it would just be too cumbersome for a new chair to walk back.”

Rosenworcel is in a delicate situation,” said Fletcher Heald’s Francisco Montero. “She wants to send a message to the White House, Congress and to the constituents that she's capable and eager and wants to move forward the president's agenda,” he said. “She doesn't want to do anything too controversial that will derail her chances for Senate approval or make her too polarizing for a White House that wants to project a bipartisan tone,” he said: “She seems to be avoiding meetings regarding industry disputes and the like, focusing on broader policy issues. She's gone public where it's safe, such as with the regulation of internet content.”

Copps gives Rosenworcel, who used to work for him, high marks. She’s “moving emergency broadband along with the urgency it compels, which is what either a top-flight interim or a permanent chairman should be doing,” he said.

The 2-2 commission is an advantage for Rosenworcel, said Cooley’s Robert McDowell, the lone Republican when Copps was in charge. “She has no choice but to find matters for open meetings that will garner at least a 3-1 or 4-0 vote,” McDowell said: “That screens out big ticket and divisive items. So look for an unusually high level of unanimous votes for a few months until the third Democrat is confirmed, and then the level of partisanship” will return to normal levels.