A Senate Commerce Committee hearing into Tom Wheeler's nomination as Federal Communications Commission chairman quickly turned into a partisan debate about the FCC's future.
Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) urged Wheeler, President Obama's choice, to be a consumer advocate.
"You face an agency that has become increasingly polarized and politicized," said Rockefeller. "The rules we have now may not be those we should have for the future, but that does not mean we should not have any, as so many in the industry seem to be advocating.
"The FCC chairman should be more than the arbitrator of industry interests," added Rockefeller. "You must use the vast authority of the FCC to advocate for the consumer. The goal is to provide access and protection for the people. The future of the nation is at stake for years to come.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the ranking Republican on the committee praised Wheeler’s industry background, but immediately raised concerns about some of his statements in a 2011 blog suggesting that the FCC could have approved AT&T’s attempt to buy T-Mobile USA but used the approval process to extract major concessions that could define the wireless market.
Thune suggested that approach would put Wheeler on a collision course with a number of Republican senators.
"I hope you understand the anxiety among lawmakers when a potential agency chairman who is tasked with executing the law discusses using a back door to imposing a regulatory regime," said Thune.
Thune suggested Congress never the expected FCC to use its regulatory authority as a backdoor to impose antitrust conditions.
Wheeler, a venture capitalist who has headed both the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, told senators that his long industry experience, including battling the FCC, gives him a unique viewpoint about the agency.
"What I learned from my business experience will make me a better chairman," said Wheeler. He promised to promote competition but also said that regulation had a place as well. "While competition is a basic American value, it is not always sufficient to protect other American values," he said.
The Commerce Committee is likely to vote on Wheeler’s nomination next week, but it’s not yet clear when the Senate will vote on the choice of Wheeler.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned Wheeler that any indication of his willingness to move forward on a request that the FCC impose disclosure requirements on campaign ads could imperil his nomination.
A consumer group has asked the FCC to implement many of the same disclosure requirements for ads proposed by Democrats in Congress in legislation called the Disclose Act.
The Tea Party Republican told Wheeler that Senate Republicans are united in opposing that step and Cruz asked Wheeler to explain his position on the subject in writing. “I would note that this is the one issue that has the potential to derail your nomination,” said Cruz. “I don’t want to see that happen. I would look closely to reading your response to whether the commission has the authority to implement the disclose act or regulate political speech."
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) questioned whether Wheeler would scrutinize deals like those that Gannett recently announced with Belo that would give one company control of TV stations and newspaper in major markets despite FCC rules limiting cross ownership and preventing a single company from owning two major network affiliates in a market.
“I have long been an advocate of diversity of voices,” responded Wheeler. “When the commission looks at these issues, competition, localism and diversity are the issues that should be the touchstones, not business plans."
Wheeler also said his past advocacy on behalf of some industry bodies wouldn’t color his work as FCC chairman. “I was an advocate for specific points of view. If I am confirmed, my client will be the American public,” he said.