In one of his first official acts, President Trump designated Commissioner Ajit Pai as the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He is the first newly appointed Republican chairman since Kevin Martin nearly 12 years ago. Many have asked: how will the FCC change under Chairman Pai?
Until recent years, the FCC was not a partisan agency. Having served with commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael O’Rielly, Chairman Pai is not expected to be particularly partisan.
Chairman Pai has served as a commissioner for nearly 5 years, and his views on a wide range of topics are publicly available on his FCC website that highlights his many Commission opinions, Congressional testimonies, speeches, publications, and blogs.
It is impossible to predict exactly where Chairman Pai will go with specific future policies such as network neutrality, particular mergers, and the aftermath of the disappointing and flawed broadcaster spectrum auction. But it is easy to describe broad themes of a Chairman Pai: follow the law, less regulation, and a folksy approach to government.
Chairman Pai is a lawyer’s lawyer. He becomes chairman with a deep understanding of communications law—he served for many years in the Office of General Counsel of the FCC before becoming a commissioner. Without notes, he effortlessly responds at public fora to questions with citations to sections of federal law, specific language in federal rules, and the history of court opinions.
He knows not just the detail and substance of the law but also how the law was crafted, how the law is administered, and how the law is adjudicated. He has served as an attorney in all three branches of government: a clerk to a federal judge, a senior counsel to two U.S. Senators, and a senior attorney in the Department of Justice. He also served as a senior attorney in a major law firm and in a major telecommunications company. He has had an extraordinary legal career for an individual of any age, much less a person still in his mid-40s.
He has written many dissents as a commissioner. While some dissents are punctuated with broad policy concerns and folksy anecdotes, all are structured around concern that a commission decision goes beyond the legal authority of the Commission. Chairman Pai has publicly criticized the legal positions the Commission has taken in court, often leading to doubt about the outcome. Whether the Commission loses in court, as it did in the VOIP symmetry order, or whether it prevails in court with the grace of lenient judges, Chairman Pai has consistently objected to aggressive legal interpretations by the Commission.
Chairman Pai has also leaned towards less rather than more regulation. In part, that tendency reflects the statutory language of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 whose preamble speaks of deregulation. In part, that tendency also reflects a preference for market rather than governmental solutions.
The regulated communications sectors needs more deregulation and will be looking to Chairman Pai for regulatory relief. My own economic research shows that the broader information sector was a major contributor to economic growth in the United States between 1997 and 2007. Investment in the sector has not fully recovered, and the American economy has languished for a decade. Little will revive investment and growth in the sector more than certain lawful deregulation.
It would be easy to look at Chairman Pai’s resume filled with legal blue chip positions after a Harvard and Chicago education and to assume that he is part of a cloistered intellectual elite. He is not. He is from a humble background. He grew up in Parsons, Kansas. Few people have heard of Parsons, Kansas, unless they have the pleasure of hearing Chairman Pai speak. He speaks with a self-effacing manner on top of a Midwestern twang, sprinkled with frequent pop culture references, not for effect, but merely because that is how he thinks and speaks.
How will Chairman Pai manage the FCC? Quite well.