In Defense Of Chairman Pai

Originally published at Forbes

Since the election of the 45th President, the loyal opposition has registered many criticisms against the new administration and its appointees. Opponents have objected to a lack of prior government experience for nearly half of the new cabinet, finding their “mere” business leadership insufficient. They have criticized many nominees for too little substance in their policy promises and proclamations. Critics have faulted the White House team for what they see as inadequate transparency in their operations and lack of inclusion of Democrats in their policy counsels.

Such criticisms are to be expected. Republicans protested in a similar manner, if slightly less intensely, at the start of the Obama administration regarding appointments for many leaders lacking private sector business experience. And the 2016 election was nasty, brutish and interminably long.

But as the new Administration took shape, one of the most surprising targets of liberal attack was a well-known and previously-popular leader, new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. As we saw in last month’s Senate oversight hearing and the attendant media, partisan fireworks are the new normal. This should not be so.

Originally appointed to the commission by President Obama, Pai is everything that many critics claim Trump nominees should be more of. A substantive telecom lawyer, he brings more than a decade of policy experience, at the commission, on Senate staff and in private practice. Pai is inclusive, amending commission rules in his first week to increase the agency’s openness and transparency for all commissioners ensuring their ability to see agenda items before reading about them in the press. He respects the agency, its role and its career staff. He continues to call for closer collaboration with Congress, and his very first action as chairman was approving $170 million in new federal grants sought by Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to help close the digital divide in super-blue state New York.

Yet when Chairman Pai proposed delaying the inclusion of just nine out of 900 broadband providers into the Lifeline program to ensure proper vetting and reduce the risk of fraud, waste and abuse, opponents swarmed. Even though eight of these nine proposed providers have no customers yet, 14 Democratic Senators wrote to the chairman, urging him to reconsider this delay. Forty-one Democratic Congressmen declared Pai’s move an “arbitrary” action “that will hurt poor children.” The New York Times bemoaned the start of a new “anti-consumer agenda at the FCC,” while a Washington Post writer declares the “Trump Administration’s other war on media.” One might have thought he was ending the program altogether, rather than attempting to ensure more dollars went to those who need Lifeline service rather than those who might not.

Likewise, when Congress recently followed Chairman Pai’s counsel to restore the longstanding FTC-led broadband privacy framework under which consumer data is uniformly protected at all times, rather than based solely on what type of internet company accesses your data, the left howled and launched ongoing protests skewered by the Wall Street Journal as “The Phony Internet Privacy Panic.”

So why such immediate, intense and coordinated attacks so early?

One reason for the vitriol may be opposition to the new administration writ large, inflamed after a bruising election season and the original immigration executive order. Once Pai switched from an Obama-appointed commissioner in the minority to the Trump-selected chairman, this son of immigrants became fair game for those out to defeat all efforts by Team Trump.

More likely, however, the coordinated and intense attacks on Pai’s modest Lifeline program delay and even his character reflect concern over his conservative ideology and proven effectiveness. Pai is a threat to many sacred liberal telecom cows. Most particularly, his stated preference for a bipartisan legislative solution to so-called “net neutrality,” rather than the party-line regulatory approach pursued by his predecessor, is especially offensive and threatening to the left. In our modern era of blood-sport politics, threats must be destroyed. By any means necessary.

If so, that’s a great shame. For decades, politics stopped at the network’s edge. Tech and telecom policy were long bipartisan, with seminal laws such as the 1996 Act passing with overwhelming support from both parties. From Congressman Rick Boucher (a Democrat) to Senator John Thune (a Republican) to Chairman Billy Tauzin (both), telecom leaders long worked across the aisle to advance good policies that united us rather than “good” politics that divided.

We saw similar reflexive hostility from the right a few years ago, when Democratic FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler appointed Gigi Sohn as a senior advisor. The former head of a prominent left-leaning advocacy organization, Sohn was as liberal as Pai is conservative. But many of us readily defended her appointment at the time, observing that she is honest, intelligent and sincerely-motivated. We did not agree with her on many policy issues, but elections have consequences, and we knew Gigi would (and did) serve honorably. When your “team” has lost the White House, you cannot ask for much more than that the other side to hire open, honest and hard-working public servants.

Ajit Pai is open, honest and hard-working. While his agenda may be conservative, he should be judged by the same standards as prior chairmen and prior senior staff. Our policies and our politics will be better for it.

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