You thought the Republican and Democratic conventions were nasty? Long festering rancor between Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel broke out into volleys of open epithets and acid-laced sarcasm this week. Strangely, the eruption of hostilities, as in real life, originated over something relatively unimportant: an innocuous draft of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) proposing to set FCC application fees — hardly the ideological stuff that normally pushes rule-makers to the point of verbal fisticuffs. It seems that Commissioner Rosenworcel objected to a single one of the hundreds of fees that are proposed in the NPRM, the proposal to raise the fee for filing formal consumer complaints from $235 to $540. In her dissenting statement, she characterized the Commission’s proposal as “crazy,” “shameful,” and showing “wild disregard” for financially insecure consumers who might want to file such a complaint. Wow. We’ve seen the Commission take actions that harm millions of consumers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars without so much as a whimper of outrage, much less an accusation of insanity.
Why the kerfuffle here? As Chairman Pai describes it, the NPRM process normally permits Commissioners to have input into the text of proposed releases before they are voted on. Per this custom, Pai says, Commissioner Rosenworcel had from July 2 to August 21 to seek a modification of the NPRM but did not avail herself of the opportunity on either of those dates or any the 49 intervening dates, each of which he venomously identified one by one. She only spoke up after the vote had been taken. Not only was this “shameful”, but it was also a “blatantly false” claim made for political purposes. Substantively, he declared Rosenworcel’s point to be “absurd” because the fee in question covers only formal complaints, not the informal complaints that hundreds of thousands of consumers use to resolve minor issues with carriers. Rosenworcel’s position demonstrated “contempt for the law” since the adjustments of application fees is compelled by statute.
It’s no longer shocking these days to hear political adversaries attack each other with the harshest of verbal slings and arrows, but open invective of this sort at the FCC is unheard of in our experience. Disagreement at the Commission no longer takes the genteel form of the old Senate, where even the bitterest of debates were couched as disagreements between “my good friend from Alabama” and “my esteemed colleague from New York.” Those days are gone. As this political year accelerates toward its increasingly hostile conclusion, we may be in for a lot more rotten tomatoes being cast in the hallways of the 8th floor. In the meantime, maybe everyone should step back and take a deep breath.