October 24, 2018

FCC Chief Tom Wheeler is five-sixths of a superhero

The last best hope to stop Big Money's rout of American democracy is a former trade group lobbyist who’s reluctant to stretch his spandex superhero suit too thin.

Plutocrats have been on a roll for a while in the U.S., and campaign finance reform is in full retreat. Though Americans hate money’s “obscene” role in politics, according to a new New York Times/CBS “>says a Democratic commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, which is “perpetually locked in 3-to-3 ties along party lines.”  Its chair, Ann M. Ravel, “>said CBS president Les Moonves in a February investor call, “and thank God the rancor has already begun.” Campaign spending will exceed $5 billion – a windfall that goes straight to TV station owners – and that’s just for the presidential race. Soon, ads that will make you want to take a shower will be pumping political sewage 24/7. Don’t look to TV news to fact-check them; with few “>it did in Philadelphia last year, by 45 to 1.  

Worse, those ads will be funded anonymously. Many of the slimiest and most deceptive will end with something like this:  Paid for by Americans for an American America.  We will have no clue what these anodynely named front groups really are or whose dark money is behind them, because the law doesn’t require transparency or accountability. We’ll get good and mad at the dog crap soiling democracy’s lawn, but we won’t even know whom to shame.  

What are we doing to prevent the anti-democratic horror show now unfolding? In the Citizens United opinions, eight Supreme Court Justices “>know that elected officials are unwilling “to fight the system they inhabit or to change the rules they have already mastered.”

But the Federal Communication Commission already possesses the power to rescue us from dark money.  Tomorrow morning, “>says, “and I’m looking for company, Tom.”

When President Obama appointed Wheeler in 2013, my heart sank. I wanted a trustbuster and consumer advocate in that job; instead, we got the former head of the Grocery Manufacturers of America and of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.  I’m so glad I was so wrong about him.  In less than two years at the FCC, he’s made bold moves, and scored some important victories, on five key fronts.

Competition:  Wheeler’s disappointing predecessor, Obama-appointee Julius Genachowski, submitted to Comcast’s takeover of NBC-Universal.  But Comcast abandoned its subsequent bid to acquire Time Warner Cable when regulators at Wheeler’s FCC and at the Department of Justice were poised to block Comcast from becoming the “>set up net neutrality to fail, paving the way for Internet providers to extract pay-to-play fast-lane tolls from big tech and content companies, leaving everyone else to suffer slowmo buffering. But Wheeler, bucking fierce industry and partisan opposition, and buoyed by four million public comments triggered in part by a “>crashed the FCC’s servers, led the commission to classify the Internet as a public utility. No wonder Wheeler’s successor at the cable lobby, Michael Powell, who was also George W. Bush’s appointee as F.C.C. chair, is now “>privacy is unassailable.”  A few weeks later, the commission put Internet Service Providers on notice that the F.C.C. will ““>proposed that the Reagan-era Lifeline program, which subsidizes the telephone service of 12 million low-income households, be extended to broadband access.  Within days, Republicans “>pre-empted industry-backed state laws that prevented underserved communities like Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga,  Tennessee from expanding municipal broadband networks.

Robocalls: On June 18, the FCC will vote on Wheeler’s “>said a couple of weeks ago, when asked if the FCC will use the authority it already has to require disclosure of the secret sponsors of political ads, “we have a long list of telecommunications-related decisions that we are dealing with right now, and that will be our focus.”  He punted to the Hill:  “Well, if the Congress acts, then we will clearly follow the mandate of Congress.”  But as he had to know, just two days before he said that the House Communications and Technology subcommittee, on a party-line vote, martyk@jewishjournal.com.