Three cheers for Senator John Thune (R-SD) for providing leadership that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) needs. Too bad that leadership isn’t coming from the agency’s chairman, Tom Wheeler.
In a speech (0) on the floor of the Senate on July 7, Sen. Thune, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, called Chairman Wheeler to account for leadership failures at the FCC. Chairman Wheeler has given the senator a lot to talk about.
Leadership failures at the FCC
In his speech, Sen. Thune described numerous leadership failures at the FCC. He pointed out that the FCC now has a greater partisan divide than ever before. Economist Scott Wallsten (1) examined FCC votes since 1994 and found that under Chairman Wheeler the percentage of commissioner votes split along party lines (26%) is over triple that under other Democratic chairmen (8%) and over five times the rate under Republican chairmen (4%). In January 2016 Multichannel News (2) observed that the FCC has had “more party line votes in the last 14 months than in the previous 43 years.”
The partisan divide at the FCC appears to be occurring because, as the Senator observed, the agency under Chairman Wheeler behaves “less as an independent commission accountable to Congress, and more as a de facto arm of the executive branch, wholly subservient to the President.” As evidence of this point, the Senator observed that Chairman Wheeler broke his promise to the Senate to seek direction before “attempting another iteration of net neutrality rules.” Instead, as has been well documented (3), Chairman Wheeler took his marching orders from the White House.
Sen. Thune characterized FCC decisions under Chairman Wheeler as power grabs. This is hard to argue against. The FCC’s own former chief economist that served during the writing of the agency’s most recent Open Internet Order (4), quipped that the proceeding was an “economics-free zone (5).” He later explained more specifically that much of the economics in the decision was simply wrong (6). In pressing the agency to launch regulations of set-top boxes, Chairman Wheeler looked to Democratic senators (7) rather than his own expert staff for intellectual and analytical support. Why? Perhaps because he was more concerned with marketing his position (8) than looking at the facts.
Proper oversight in action
Sen. Thune’s leadership is in sharp contrast to the actions of his colleagues across the aisle. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had no qualms about taking credit (9) for Chairman Wheeler’s actions regarding set-top boxes, implying that in their view Chairman Wheeler was simply doing their bidding. Senators Al Franken (D-MN), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) were apparently happy to let their “analysis (10),” which they co-authored with Senators Sanders and Warren, provide the basis for Chairman Wheeler moving forward on the issue.
In taking Chairman Wheeler to task on his performance on specific issues, laying out the facts, and citing the proper rules and laws, Sen. Thune is demonstrating something that is sometimes rare in Washington: proper congressional oversight. Oversight of independent agencies is hard in the US because that oversight is provided directly by politicians who lack the right expertise and are necessarily directed by political concerns (in the UK, for example, regulatory agency oversight is provided by boards of directors that report to Parliament). The job of oversight in the US therefore calls for senators and representatives to keep their noses in the business of the FCC, but their fingers out. Certain Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as the White House, have violated this principle by putting their fingers in the FCC’s affairs, diminishing agency leadership to that of clerks who do politicians’ biddings.
Wanted: Proper leadership
What kind of leadership does the FCC need? One kind is adaptive leadership — a concept pioneered by Harvard University’s Ronald Heifetz (11) —that helps organizations recognize and address harsh realities. Senator Thune is providing adaptive leadership by pointing to failings, identifying disconnects, and showing the dangers of a continued downward slide.
The other kind of leadership is that which fulfills the authority vested in the chairman. The head of any organization is expected to provide direction (which is about clarifying the organization’s purpose and role), order (which is about aligning the organization to fulfill its purpose), and protection (which is about protecting the organization from the forces that could hinder its work).
Chairman Wheeler has clearly failed in providing direction because he has abdicated the agency’s regulatory role to the White House and to Democratic congresspersons. His failure to provide proper order is evidenced by the agency’s diminishing transparency (12). And Chairman Wheeler has also failed in providing protection. For example, at a recent commission vote on Lifeline, a telecommunications price discount plan for low-income households, Chairman Wheeler delayed the vote so that congressional Democrats could pressure (13) Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to vote along party lines rather than align with her Republican colleagues at the commission. Enabling Democratic politicians to interfere with his fellow commissioner is a betrayal of the chairman’s leadership duties.