FCC chairman Ajit Pai to resign when Biden is inaugurated

Pai’s resignation could pave the way for net neutrality’s return

Ajit Pai sitting at a desk

Republican Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Ajit Pai, has announced he’ll leave his post on January 20, 2021 — the same day President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in.

During his tenure, Pai played a key role in stripping out net neutrality protections enacted under the Obama administration. In late 2017, the FCC voted along party lines to remove “Title II” classification for broadband service, enabling internet service providers (ISPs) to block and throttle bandwidth. The rollback also allowed service providers to charge for traffic prioritization, as long as they disclosed such practices. This effectively allowed ISPs to slow competitors’ content.

It’s unknown who’ll take over the chairperson role, but Biden will likely aim to move a Democrat commissioner into the vacant chairperson role and appoint a new Democrat to fill the then-vacant commissioner seat. This would give democrats a 3-2 majority — the largest party majority allowed in the FCC — and clear the way for Biden to reinstate net neutrality protections.

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve at the Federal Communications Commission, including as Chairman of the FCC over the past four years,” Pai said in a statement that largely ignored the issue of net neutrality. “To be the first Asian-American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege. As I often say: only in America.”

Pai also oversaw the merger of Sprint with T-Mobile, which he called “a unique opportunity to speed up the deployment of 5G throughout the United States.” He also implemented measures to fight robocalls and established a national suicide prevention hotline number.

Pai added in his statement that he put in place more measures to ensure transparency within the commission.

“For the first time ever, we’ve made public drafts of the proposals and orders slated for a vote three weeks before the agency’s monthly meetings,” Pai said, “making this the most transparent FCC in history.”

Pai has been on the FCC since President Obama nominated him at Mitch McConnell’s recommendation in 2012. In January 2017, President Donald Trump appointed him the FCC chairman, which carries a five-year term.

Pai’s upcoming departure has sparked debate over who’ll fill his vacant seat. With Republican Michael O'Reilly's term set to expire on January 3, 2021, Biden will have two commission seats to fill.

Whoever Biden chooses to fill these vacant seats will have to go through Senate confirmation, which could be an uphill battle. Following the 2020 general election, Republicans hold a slim 50-48 majority in the new Senate in 2021, but two Georgia Senate runoff elections are coming on January 5, 2021. 

If Republicans incumbents retain either Georgia Senate seat, they’ll keep a narrow majority, forcing Biden to work with Senate Republicans to confirm his FCC nominees. 

If Democrats win both Georgia Senate runoffs, there will be a 50-50 party split in the Senate. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will hold the tiebreaking Senate vote, clearing Biden’s FCC nominees’ confirmation path. 

Among the contenders for FCC chairman are Democrats Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks. Rosenworcel has been an FCC commissioner since 2012 and is the frontrunner. Starks has been on the FCC since January 2019. 

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