The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s FCC chairman has wasted no time enacting a conservative agenda in his first 100 days

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Last week, President Trump celebrated his first 100 days in office without a major legislative achievement to his name. But even as the administration made some headway Thursday with a deeply controversial health-care bill, some of Trump's allies in Washington are moving even more swiftly.

Few have acted as decisively as Ajit Pai, the Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Elevated by Trump to the role in January, the Indian American telecom regulator has worked to reduce his agency's profile. He has proposed transferring some of the FCC's authority over Internet providers to other regulators, for example, and has questioned the need for key policies enacted under the Obama administration.

Facing little organized resistance, Pai is establishing himself as the vanguard for a wave of deregulation that could set the tone for industry for years.

“When the facts warrant, we won’t hesitate to revise overly burdensome rules or repeal them altogether,” Pai vowed Friday in a speech at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute about his first 100 days. “And you don’t need a weatherman to know that the wind is blowing certain FCC rules toward modification or elimination.”

Each month at the FCC's public meetings, Pai has packed his colleagues' schedule full of initiatives — ranging from relatively uncontroversial items, such as approving new broadcast television technologies, to highly partisan proposals, including last week's bid to undo the FCC's net neutrality rules. That draft proposal will be voted on during the agency's next monthly meeting, on May 18, and could give Internet providers the freedom to slow websites, block online content or take payments from website owners to speed up their sites at the expense of others.

With a 2-to-1 majority at the commission, Republicans can ram through their preferred policies with ease — unlike many other parts of Washington that are deadlocked in a partisan stalemate or understaffed as many high-level positions remain unfilled. On Friday, Pai said he has pushed through more agenda items in his first 100 days than each of his two immediate predecessors did in their first 100 days. The FCC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Slow pace of Trump nominations leaves Cabinet agencies ‘stuck’ in staffing limbo

But Pai is not merely throwing fastballs. He has seen it fit not to act when threats to existing FCC policies arise.

In January, he chose not to send his agency's lawyers to defend key swaths of a lawsuit taking aim at FCC regulations concerning the price of prison inmate phone calls. By sidestepping those arguments, Pai is signaling that he does not agree with previous FCC efforts to lower calling rates for the incarcerated.

Pai also cheered an effort by Trump and congressional Republicans in March to repeal a number of his agency's protections for consumer privacy. In a move opposed by civil liberties groups and supported by industry allies, the GOP nullified FCC rules restricting Internet providers from collecting, sharing or selling the behavioral data generated by consumers as they browse the Web. By preventing the regulations from taking effect later this year, the repeal effectively gave broadband providers greater leeway to mine customer data and track user activities.

“Appropriately, Congress has passed a resolution to reject this approach of picking winners and losers before it takes effect,” Pai said at the time.

Allowing telecom and cable companies to act more easily in their own interests has been a consistent theme of Pai's early tenure. So has his penchant for opening up the agency to outside analysis, whether by making public the text of decisions the commission is about to vote on or by setting up a whole new department dedicated to economic cost-benefit reports.

“No one should be surprised regarding Ajit's first 100 days,” said Robert McDowell, a Republican former FCC commissioner. “He has rapidly put into motion efforts to implement policies he has clearly articulated for years. He believes that markets best serve consumers, and he will propose policies that reflect that philosophy.”

Pai has resisted using the FCC's rulemaking powers to regulate the broadband industry, preferring instead an after-the-fact approach that investigates and penalizes allegations of consumer abuse by companies. That has led to a close partnership with the Federal Trade Commission, whose acting chairwoman, Maureen Ohlhausen, shares similar views with Pai. The two have jointly argued that Internet providers should be regulated on the basis of their own promises to the public and that when they deviate from those statements, the FTC should be the one to hold them accountable.

But trusting large, established telecom and cable giants to keep their word — or to write self-regulatory policies that aren't ridden with loopholes — is fraught with risks for consumers, said Robert Cooper, an antitrust lawyer at Boies Schiller Flexner.

“There is a role for antitrust enforcement in this space, but it is not a substitute for prescriptive rules,” Cooper said. “[It] is expensive and time consuming and thus favors those with the greatest resources. Moreover, it necessarily requires that an alleged violation already has occurred.”

Pai has argued that there are strong benefits to rolling back regulation. For example, the chairman's draft proposal for net neutrality asks whether prescriptive rules for Internet providers are even necessary and, if not, what if anything should replace them. Repealing the rules, Pai has argued, will lead to a glut of investment by Internet providers in their own networks, creating jobs and accelerating the spread of high-speed broadband nationwide.

Pai has sought to encourage that build-out himself. One of his first acts as chairman was to approve roughly $170 million in FCC funding for broadband construction in rural New York. The move became a foundational piece of his promise to close the digital divide separating those with high-speed Internet from those without. To mark his commitment, Pai undertook a multi-day tour of the Midwest, where he touted the need for more broadband investment.

But Pai also triggered a backlash when another of his early steps appeared to undercut that mission — by preventing a number of small Internet providers from offering low-cost broadband to needy families. Whereas his calls for more, better and faster Internet nationwide seemed to strike a bipartisan tone, Pai's approach to individual broadband subsidies provoked a hostile response among Democratic lawmakers and a celebratory attitude among Republicans, many of whom have long criticized such programs as filled with waste, fraud and abuse.

Other moves seemed to play — albeit indirectly — toward Trump's hardcore base. Before a Senate committee in March, Pai repeatedly declined to reject the notion, advanced by Trump in a tweet, that the mainstream media are the “enemy of the people.” Pai eventually noted that Trump had been referring to “fake news,” which the chairman said was a “political debate into which I will not be wading.”

But in fact, Trump's remarks had blasted major mainstream news outlets, such as ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and the New York Times, as fake news. Asked by reporters days later to refute the characterization of those organizations as fake-news outlets, Pai again declined, saying it was a matter of politics he would not discuss. Pai's agency is responsible for crafting policies that significantly affect the U.S. media on matters of ownership, content rights and indecency.

Pai has nevertheless drawn praise from both sides of the political spectrum as an affable, experienced policymaker who is deeply knowledgeable about technology and the law. A deft communicator who peppers his speeches with sports analogies and “Seinfeld” references, Pai, along with his agency, offers a rare example in Trump's Washington of a functioning bureaucracy, policy analysts say.