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Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel replaces Ajit Pai, is now acting FCC chairwoman

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel speaking at a Senate committee hearing in June 2020.
Enlarge / Jessica Rosenworcel answers a question during a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing to examine the Federal Communications Commission on June 24, 2020 in Washington, DC.

President Joe Biden today appointed Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel to be the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission. Rosenworcel became an FCC commissioner in 2012 and served in a Democratic majority during the Obama years and in a Democratic minority during the Trump years.

“I am honored to be designated as the Acting Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Biden,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “I thank the President for the opportunity to lead an agency with such a vital mission and talented staff. It is a privilege to serve the American people and work on their behalf to expand the reach of communications opportunity in the digital age.”

With ex-Chairman Ajit Pai having left the FCC yesterday, there is a 2-2 split between Democrats and Republicans. To form a 3-2 Democratic majority, Biden will have to nominate a new commissioner and secure confirmation from the Senate—which shouldn’t be too difficult now that Democrats control the chamber. Biden’s decision to promote Rosenworcel from commissioner to acting chairwoman does not require Senate approval.

Designating Rosenworcel as the acting chairwoman means that she may not be the chair throughout Biden’s four-year term. Biden could upgrade her role to chairwoman on a permanent basis, or he could give the chair role to whomever he picks as the fifth commissioner. Technically, Biden could also give the permanent chair role to the FCC’s other Democrat, Geoffrey Starks, but that seems unlikely.

FCC could bring back net neutrality

As a commissioner, Rosenworcel has supported net neutrality rules and common-carrier regulation of broadband providers, pushed for increases in the FCC’s broadband-speed standard, and prioritized broadband access for children from low-income families.

The FCC press release announcing the appointment today said that “Rosenworcel has worked to promote greater opportunity, accessibility, and affordability in our communications services in order to ensure that all Americans get a fair shot at 21st century success. From fighting to protect net neutrality to ensuring access to the Internet for students caught in the Homework Gap, she has been a consistent champion for connecting all. She is a leader in spectrum policy, developing new ways to support wireless services from Wi-Fi to video and the Internet of things.”

Four years ago, President Donald Trump promoted Pai to the chairman’s spot without any “acting” designation. The last acting chair was Democrat Mignon Clyburn, who held the role for six months in 2013 before the Senate confirmation of Obama nominee Tom Wheeler. Wheeler, Clyburn, and Rosenworcel formed the Democratic majority that enacted the net neutrality rules that were later repealed by Pai’s Republican majority.

Even with a 2-2 deadlock, Rosenworcel can take some actions that don’t require a full commission vote, as we’ve previously written. For example, she could change the FCC’s positions in ongoing lawsuits, such as the one the Trump administration filed to block California’s state net neutrality law. Reinstating FCC net neutrality rules and common-carrier regulation of ISPs will require a majority.

Consumer-advocacy group Free Press applauded Biden’s pick of Rosenworcel, saying:

As a commissioner, Rosenworcel has challenged the Trump FCC’s worst actions and impulses. Now she must rebuild after the previous regime tried to demolish so much of the agency’s most important work. Rosenworcel’s long record of public service and deep knowledge of the issues before the FCC make her uniquely suited to fixing what has been broken at the agency over the past four years. We hope she will use the power of the office to push immediately for long-overdue changes that can improve people’s lives, create opportunities for new and diverse voices, and make the FCC an agency that’s committed to public needs rather than corporate greed.

Biden today also promoted Federal Trade Commission member Rebecca Kelly Slaughter to the FTC’s acting chair role. An FTC announcement said that Slaughter has “been particularly outspoken about combatting systemic racism, growing threats to competition, and the broad abuse of consumers’ data.” Free Press said that Slaughter has “been persistently clear-headed on combating corporate malfeasance and argued for real remedies that these same companies can’t shrug off as the cost of doing business.” The announcement added that she is likely to “chart a new path forward for the agency and use its powers to address pressing civil-rights harms and systemic racial inequalities in privacy, antitrust enforcement and in our economy writ large.”