It's a question worth asking: Why is the FCC boss being such a jerk?

The answer – because net-neutrality slayer Ajit Pai wants to stay in charge


Not all bad, though

Which is a shame because Pai had identified a lot of the issues with the FCC, particularly its outdated procedures. He railed, quite correctly, about the ludicrous situation where people were unable to see FCC rules until after they had been approved.

He also flagged the ridiculous situation where even after they had been approved, the FCC chair can make changes to them. And he noted, with one eyebrow raised heavily, that there had been a very significant change to the net neutrality rules at the last minute that appears to be solely in response to a letter sent to the FCC from a "very large California company."

He was referring to Google, which had managed to use its eerily close relationship to the White House to extend its tentacles into every part of the federal government.

Despite there being strict rules about what the FCC and its staff were allowed to share outside the regulator, it was abundantly clear from the letter that Google's policy team had got hold of some very detailed information. It smacked of special treatment.

Pai's colleague Mike O'Rielly was also flagging problems with how the FCC was run, but was repeatedly hitting a brick wall of staff obfuscation. Both were being frozen out, and Pai started complaining that Wheeler wasn't even bothering to pretend he was considering Pai's and O'Rielly's legitimate policy concerns, but just plowed ahead knowing he had the votes to pass it regardless.

Aside from a few stage-managed efforts to show that the FCC Commissioners were getting on just fine, the federal regulator had been sucked into partisan politics and all the hyperbole and pontificating that comes with it.

And then the election happened.

Welcome President Trump

Pretty much everyone in Washington assumed that Hillary Clinton was going to become president. And that meant that things would have stayed largely the same at the FCC.

Republicans had been blocking the reappointment of Jessica Rosenworcel as a Democratic FCC commissioner for pure politics – she was a very qualified and highly respected. The Republicans also wanted to force Tom Wheeler out of his job as chairman of the FCC.

With Clinton in charge, she would have probably got Rosenworcel back into the regulator, and named a new chairman, and the watchdog's ruling committee would have settled into a 3-2 Democrat majority.

As for Pai: his term actually expired in June 2016, although he is able to stay on the FCC until the end of 2017, at which point he needs Senate confirmation. The Democrats would almost certainly have refused to reappoint him because of his partisan comments. And net neutrality – already backed up by the courts – would have remained in place.

But then Trump won.

Having debated whether to refuse to stand down and simply stay on at the FCC to block any efforts to overturn his earlier decisions, Tom Wheeler finally decided that he would follow tradition and leave when the new administration took over.

And then there were three

That left Pai, O'Rielly and Democrat Mignon Clyburn on the FCC. And no decision as to who would be chair.

Pai desperately wanted the chairmanship, and so in his bid to get the role started adopting Trumpisms: furious denunciations combined with "I alone can fix this" exclamations of problems and his solutions.

And it worked. Three days after his inauguration, President Trump was persuaded by his FCC advisors to select Ajit Pai as permanent chair, rather than give him a temporary title or name a new chair.

It was an easy call in the end: Pai had made big play about wanting to kill off net neutrality, he has displayed both aggressive partisanship and a willingness to tear things up, but most usefully, it meant Trump could simply move on to other things because the Republicans had a 2-1 majority.

But Pai's time on the FCC will end at the end of this year unless he can do two things: get Trump's approval for his reappointment, and get the Senate to approve his candidacy.

It is an enormous fork in Pai's career and life.

If he can go down one path, he becomes chair of a powerful federal regulator for the next five years and from there he can leave to become a massively well-paid lobbyist, quite possibly the next head of the cable industry's main lobbying body.

If he goes down the other path, he is a short-term FCC chair, booted off in less than a year and having to negotiate his way back into a law firm or the legal department of a big telco.

Next page: Dear Donald...

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