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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Will Step Down in January

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Drinks from a large mug with the Reese's peanut butter cup logo

Posted by Chris Alarie on Mon, 11/30/2020 - 12:22

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai announced on Monday that he will leave the commission on January 20, 2021, the date that Joe Biden is expected to be inaugurated as president. While Pai’s term as Chairman was not set to end until June 2021, this decision to step down follows the usual precedent when the presidency changes hands between parties.

There had been some speculation that Pai might decline to follow this tradition as a part of the Republican Party’s reluctance to challenge President Donald Trump’s ongoing attempts to overturn the results of the election. This announcement ensures that the FCC will participate in the orderly transfer of power between the parties.

Pai was first appointed as an FCC Commissioner by President Obama in 2012 and was elevated to the Chairmanship by President Trump in 2017. His tenure as Chairman has been characterized by a “hands off” regulatory approach that has favored the interests of businesses. This has occasionally proven controversial, particularly with regards to his repeal of Obama era net neutrality standards. However, the one exception to this approach was how the FCC regulated robocalls under Chairman Pai. From the FCC’s work to develop SHAKEN/STIR to the efforts taken to implement the TRACED Act, Pai’s FCC took a much stricter regulatory stance toward robocalls than it did to any other aspect of American communications.

With Pai’s decision to step down, Biden will be able to appoint a new Chairman as well as replace both Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, whose re-nomination was yanked by President Trump this summer due to a dispute over the President’s stance on Section 230 of the Communications Act and the regulation of social media in general.

Following the usual standards, the FCC’s new lineup will have a 3-2 balance in favor of the new President’s party, with a Democrat as Chairperson. With a closely divided Senate and confirmation battles expected for nearly every executive appointee, it seems likely that Biden will choose someone who is relatively uncontroversial and well known. The two leading candidates are current Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and former Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who had a brief tenure as acting Chairperson in 2013. Regardless of whom Biden chooses as Chair, the FCC is certain to take a stricter regulatory stance under Democratic leadership.