The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The FCC’s Republicans went to a conservative confab. One won a gun, the other an ethics complaint.

Federal Communications Commission members Brendan Carr, left, Michael O'Rielly and Chairman Ajit Pai at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Republicans who lead the country’s top telecom agency arrived at an annual gathering of influential conservatives Friday hoping to tout their business bona fides — from freeing the Internet from government’s grasp to battling back the efforts of their Democratic predecessors.

Instead, the appearance by Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and his GOP colleagues at the agency offered an unexpected brush with a national battle over gun control — and a new ethics complaint targeting one of its members for his comments about President Trump.

It began as soon as Pai arrived on stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Maryland, where he was slated to deliver a short speech.

But Dan Schneider, executive director of the CPAC-producing American Conservative Union, said there had been a change of plans. As Pai chuckled, Schneider ceded the podium to Carolyn Meadows, the second vice president of the National Rifle Association. And Meadows presented Pai with the “Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award,” an honor that the NRA occasionally bestows on those who champion conservative causes despite intense criticism. Previous awardees include Vice President Pence and conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.

In this case, the award was a “Kentucky handmade long gun,” said Meadows, who admitted the rifle could not be brought on stage. She said it would be stored for Pai at an NRA museum.

Conservative leaders explained they were honoring Pai partly because of his work to roll back federal rules that had subjected Internet providers to tougher regulations. The fight over net neutrality has resulted in Pai receiving death threats, forcing him to cancel recent public speeches.

The award came in the same week that the NRA’s leader appeared on stage at CPAC and blasted emerging federal efforts to restrict gun sales in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Pai appeared stunned. (His spokesman said that the FCC chairman had no idea he would receive such an award.) He soon joined a panel to discuss telecom policy along with his fellow GOP commissioners, including Michael O’Rielly, who quipped, “Not every day you get a musket.”

O’Rielly, however, later found himself embroiled in his own controversy. His trouble started with a question about what the FCC could do to stop the constant “ping-pong” of issues, such as net neutrality, every time the party in power changes in the nation’s capital.

“I think what we can do is make sure as conservatives that we elect good people to both the House, Senate and make sure that President Trump gets reelected,” O’Rielly began.

The GOP commissioner’s plug for the president riled some ethics watchdogs. Under a set of rules known as the Hatch Act, government officials such as O’Rielly generally aren’t supposed to use their stations to advocate for election outcomes.

Technically, Trump is already a candidate for the 2020 presidential race; he has filed his paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. The early nature of his candidacy even prompted the Office of Special Counsel to issue guidance in February 2017 as to what Trump administration officials could and could not say about their boss’s upcoming campaign. In short, the OSC ruled that the Hatch Act does “prohibit federal employees, while on duty or in the workplace, from expressly advocating for or against his reelection in 2020.”

Citing that guidance, one organization — American Oversight, a nonprofit group backed by many Democrats that seeks to target the Trump administration on ethics issues — said it would file a complaint against O’Rielly with the OSC. Its leader, Austin Evers, also called in a statement for O’Rielly to resign.

Another watchdog — Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — said it’s reviewing the matter. “This certainly raises Hatch Act issues,” spokesman Jordan Libowitz said in a statement. O’Rielly “is prohibited from taking part in partisan political activity using his official title or position.”

In response, a spokeswoman for O’Rielly said in a statement Friday: “Commissioner O’Rielly was asked a question on how to prevent the agency from ping ponging back and forth. He tried to respond in a factual way without engaging in advocacy.”

Taken together, the Republicans’ appearance at a major conservative conference may serve to rekindle a persistent debate as to whether the agency has become too partisan — especially under Trump.

Some congressional Democrats have openly questioned whether Pai and his colleagues at the FCC, an independent regulatory agency, have been influenced by Trump — and whether they’ve been too generous to the president’s political allies, including the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a telecommunications giant that is seeking the agency’s approval to buy Tribune Media. Pai repeatedly and forcefully has denied those charges.

“The FCC controls our airwaves, the Internet, and so many of the things we interact with every single day,” said Evers, the executive director of American Oversight. “It should be independent, it should not be partisan, and bottom line, it should obey the law.”