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Genachowski Plays FCC Waiting Game

By: John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable

The search for Julius Genachowski's official nod from the White House is beginning to resemble the Where's Waldo?picture book. While it often takes months for a new administration to install an FCC chairman, early reads from the industry indicated that President Obama would move fairly swiftly to install his presumptive pick, given the prominence the administration has put on the broadband build-out and the DTV transition.

But after news leaked that the White House had let Congress know Genachowski was the president's choice, leading to stories that handicapped a Genachowski FCC—smart, reasonable, with plenty of media business experience—the silence from Pennsylvania Avenue has been palpable. Granted, at presstime the administration was taking its third stab at a Commerce Secretary nominee, so the FCC delay, if it is a delay, must be looked at in context.

But in light of the presumptive tag, “Where's Julius?” seems a valid question. “Everybody is wondering the same thing,” says one veteran lobbyist.

The consensus from a number of lobbyists who asked not to be identified is that the administration is looking for a replacement for the Republican FCC seat vacated by Deborah Taylor Tate in January, to be paired with a Democratic nominee who would succeed Jonathan Adelstein if he exits.


“Julius is close to the president and is perfectly well qualified; he seems to be Central Casting for this job. So why isn't he in office?” asks one veteran Washington insider.

“My guess is they are trying to put together a package,” says a high-powered Washington communications player, “and they don't have it yet worked out with the Republicans and the White House and how those seats are going to be selected.”

That means we could be waiting quite a while for a new regime at the FCC. “It took former FCC chairman Reed Hundt nearly a year to be installed as chairman, so it could take months,” says Dick Wiley, partner at Wiley Rein and himself a former FCC chairman. “Hopefully because of the importance of broadband, DTV transition and other issues, it will happen more quickly.”

Getting a minority voice and face on the commission is likely playing into the widespread speculation that the White House wants to move on more than one seat at a time. If the administration isn't planning to renominate Adelstein, it will likely look for a diverse candidate like, say, Mignon Clyburn. “You can't have three white Democrat males on the commission,” says the veteran Washington insider.

Clyburn is generally thought to be the Obama administration's pick for the Democratic seat if it opens up. She was one of the names floated as a possibility for chairman, and is now the first name that comes up as a replacement for Adelstein.

Clyburn is a South Carolina public service commissioner and daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C). She is said to be still going through the vetting process, which could be another holdup.

FCC deputy general counsel Ajit Pai is being pushed for the Republican seat by a group of senators led by his former boss, Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Pai attended Harvard, where Obama received his law degree; Pai got his J.D. from the University of Chicago.

But he may have been pushed too aggressively, according to one lobbyist. “I would be shocked if it is Ajit,” the source says. “He is too strongly associated with [former FCC chairman] Kevin Martin, and if you look at the history of FCC candidates, if you come out too aggressively that early in the process, you can just forget it. You put a target on your chest, and it gives you plenty of time for people to go after you and other people to get their own candidates together.”

In addition to the usual crop of Hill staffers pushed by their bosses, those other candidates are said to include David Gross, the top international communications adviser to the State Department in the administration of George W. Bush. But Gross, who recently joined Wiley Rein, may be out of play. Meredith Baker's name has been floated, but the former acting NTIA head's association with the much-maligned DTV converter box coupon program likely reduces her chances, even though she gets high marks from both sides of the aisle for being easy to work with.

Another late entry in the name game for the Republican seat is Hilda Legg, former administrator of the USDA's Rural Utilities Service under President George W. Bush. RUS administers some broadband grant money, and broadband is a big priority for the new president.

The White House did not return several requests for comment on the status of the nominations.


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