FCC Nominee Confirmation Murky; Senator Threatens Block

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Much of the Senate confirmation hearing for FCC nominee Nathan Simington on Tuesday was uneventful and the full body has yet to act. He appeared with nominees for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Commerce, yet lawmakers only questioned him. Republicans asked questions meant to elicit what kind of FCC Commissioner he would be in general, while Democrats focused on a few specific topics such as 5G, rural broadband and a portion of communications law concerning social media. 

It’s the last topic that garnered the most controversial portion of the brief, one-hour hearing. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently said he’d move to “clarify” legal protections for social media after President Trump in May directed the Commerce Department to file a petition with the Commission to limit legal protections for platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Trump has said on Twitter they’ve not treated him fairly.

As Acting Ranking Member during the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said he’s “deeply concerned the President’s executive order is an assault on the FCC.”

Simington has been a Senior Advisor for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) since June. Before joining the NTIA, he was Senior Corporate Counsel for Brightstar Corporation in Miami, Florida, where his portfolio included wireless credit, mergers and acquisitions, tower services, operations and logistics, data security, and regulatory compliance, according to his committee bio.

Blumenthal said, “NTIA, in your time, in effect, has acted as an arm of the President …acting in retaliation against [the President’s] political rivals. We need the FCC to be free from political interference.”

Blumenthal asked Simington to describe his input into the NTIA draft directing the FCC to begin a rulemaking to reign in social media. Simington said his input was minimal, about five to seven percent. He said he played a “minor role” in preparing the document and once it became clear he would be nominated for the FCC, he “stopped acting on the petition.”

The Senator sought a commitment from Simington that if confirmed, he would not work on that rulemaking. Simington deferred, saying it was “premature” to make such a pledge. He said he would go by the advice of the Commission’s ethics office. 

Blumenthal said if Simington did not recuse himself from working on that topic, “I’ll put a hold on your confirmation.” Blumenthal said Simington was nominated by Trump for the FCC because Commissioner Michael O’Rielly “was fired because he stood up to the President.” Inside Towers reported that before the Senate could confirm O’Rielly for another term, President Trump withdrew the re-nomination. No reason was given; however it followed an O’Rielly comment concerning social media that the Commissioner said was not aimed at the president.

John Thune (R-SD) asked Simington whether he had concerns about the potential nationalization of 5G, which a Department of Defense Request for Information has hinted at, Inside Towers reported. Simington said it’s unclear to him “how such a U.S. network could be commercialized.” He said he hasn’t “heard about building commercialized backhaul…towers…That doesn’t mean we should create uncertainty in the market by leaving that out there” as a possibility, he testified.

It’s uncertain whether the Senate will confirm Simington given everything on that body’s plate concerning COVID as the 116th session of Congress winds down. New Street Research analyst Blair Levin pointed out during a WIA webinar this week that Simington was the choice of the outgoing president. Traditionally, the sitting president defers to the Senate Commerce Committee chair’s choice. 

During the hearing, President Trump urged the Senate to quickly confirm Simington. In a tweet, the President characterized Simington “as a very smart and qualified individual.” He added: “Republicans will hopefully confirm him to the FCC ASAP! We need action NOW on this very important nomination!!” 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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