FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to step down Jan. 20, guaranteeing GOP majority

Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced Thursday that he would leave the agency Jan. 20, guaranteeing Republicans will have a majority after President-elect Donald Trump takes office that day.

The move makes it easier for Republicans to try to repeal new online traffic rules known as net neutrality, as well as other controversial actions taken by the agency’s Democratic majority under President Obama.

Wheeler, 70, a Democrat who has served as chairman since late 2013, was widely expected to leave once Trump became president. The president gets to designate the chairman of the FCC, and Trump would pick a Republican to supplant Wheeler to head the commission.


But there was a question about whether Wheeler would buck tradition and stay on as a regular commissioner until his five-year term ends in 2018 to try to preserve some of his major policy actions.

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Such a move would have left the five-member commission, which will have one vacancy next year, deadlocked with two Democrats and two Republicans.

That would have kept Republicans from having the votes to reverse Wheeler initiatives.

But Wheeler, who has been coy about his future, ended that speculation Thursday by issuing a news release announcing his plans to leave the FCC.

“This is in keeping with the commitments that I have repeatedly made since March that I would cooperate with the wishes of the new administration to assure a smooth transition and that I would follow the precedent that when the White House changes parties, the chairman resigns regardless of the amount of time left in the term,” Wheeler told reporters after the FCC’s December meeting, his last on the commission.

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Under Republican leadership, the FCC is expected to try to weaken the net neutrality regulations, which were enacted by a partisan 3-2 vote in 2015.

Urged on by Obama, the FCC classified broadband as a more highly regulated service under Title 2 of the telecommunications law. The classification gave the FCC more authority over broadband providers.

It also opened the door for the agency to enact new rules, approved by another partisan 3-2 vote in October, requiring high-speed Internet service providers to get customer permission before using or sharing sensitive personal data.

Republicans on the commission and in Congress strongly opposed the moves, and both are expected to be early targets of the new FCC chairman.

Republicans said they didn’t oppose the goals of net neutrality — to prohibit broadband companies from slowing Internet speeds for some content such as video streams, selling faster lanes for delivering data or otherwise discriminating against any legal online material. But they strongly objected to classifying broadband providers for the same type of regulatory oversight as conventional phone companies.

Congressional Republicans also could attempt to override the new regulatory classification for broadband providers with legislation, an effort that stalled in 2013 because of a sure Obama veto.

Wheeler said Thursday that he hoped any legislation would not enact weaker net neutrality rules that “gutted” the FCC’s authority to enforce them.

Calling his tenure as chairman “ the greatest privilege of my professional career,” Wheeler downplayed the partisan divides on that and other key issues under his leadership.

“The headlines got built around our differences, but the facts are that we accomplished a lot,” he said.

Wheeler said he tried to make decisions that benefited “the common good” and defended government service in the wake of an election in which Trump was elected promising to “drain the swamp” of Washington.

“Those who chant that government is the problem are wrong, and their chant is dangerous,” Wheeler said.

“Government isn’t some faceless them. It is us. It is we the people who govern ourselves,” he said. “Government is where we come together to collectively address common challenges.”

Wheeler admitted he had “hoped for another outcome” in the election, but said he has had “two good meetings” with Trump’s FCC transition staff.

No clear candidates to replace Wheeler have emerged, and FCC nominations are typically in the second tier of presidential appointments, after Cabinet members and top White House staff positions.

The fifth member of the FCC, Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, must leave the commission on Dec. 31 after the Republican-controlled Senate failed to approve her renomination by President Obama before recessing last week. That will give Trump two nominations to make, though one would be a Democrat because only three commissioners can be from the same political party.

“It has been an honor, a privilege and a wild ride,” Rosenworcel said Thursday of her service.

Senate Republicans have said Wheeler’s failure to formally commit to stepping down from the agency altogether had complicated Democratic efforts to confirm Rosenworcel to a second term.

Outgoing Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) of reneging on a deal to confirm Rosenworcel in exchange for Democratic support for the renomination of Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly in 2015.

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10:35 a.m.: This article was updated with more details about the effects on net neutrality rules.

9:50 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, as well as details about possible replacements.

8:10 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details on the politics behind Jessica Rosenworcel’s failed renomination.

This article originally was published at 6:50 a.m.