In a markup session this morning that included eight bills and seven nominations, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved the renomination of FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly to another full term on the Commission, expiring June 30, 2024, as well as an amended version of a bill that would require the FCC to incorporate maternal health outcome data into its broadband health maps.
Both actions were taken by voice vote, but four Democratic members of the committee asked to be recorded as no votes on Mr. O’Rielly’s nomination: committee ranking minority member Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) and Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), and Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii).
Sen. Cantwell cited concerns about a 2018 finding by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded that Commissioner O’Rielly “violated the Hatch Act for political comments made at a Conservative Political Action Conference event.” She also said that he “has recently injected I believe politics into part of the spectrum issue, which I find disturbing.”
The OSC found that remarks Mr. O’Rielly made at the CPAC event in February 2018 constituted advocacy for the reelection of President Trump and thus violated the Hatch Act’s restrictions on political activities by federal executive branch employees. He had responded to a question during a panel discussion at the CPAC event about what could be done to avoid “regulatory ping pong” on FCC positions when party control of the agency flips with presidential administrations by saying that “what we can do is make sure as conservatives that we elect good people to both the House and Senate and make sure that President Trump gets elected” (TR Daily, Feb. 23, 2018). At the time, the OSC issued a warning to Commissioner O’Rielly and advised future violations of the Hatch Act could lead to further action; however, with respect to Senate-confirmed employees such as FCC Commissioners, further action is limited to referring the complaint to the president “for appropriate action” (TR Daily, May 2, 2018).
Commissioner O’Rielly’s original term expired in 2014, and his second term expired June 30, 2019. By statute, if he is not confirmed to another term, he is allowed to continue serving until the earlier of the end of the current legislative session or the confirmation of a successor.
In a statement at the beginning of the markup, committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) said, “I hope all these nominations will soon be considered on the Senate floor.”
Before approving the Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act (S 3152), the committee adopted an amendment in the nature of a substitute offered by original sponsor Jacky Rosen (D., Nev.) and an amendment offered by Sen. Rick Scott (R., Fla.).
The Rosen amendment changed references to incorporating maternal health data into the Commission’s broadband health mapping tools to specify “the most recently available” broadband health mapping tools. Like the original bill, it requires the FCC to consult with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the maternal health outcomes that should be incorporated into the mapping tools.
The Scott amendment added a requirement for the Government Accountability Office to complete a report within one year of enactment on “(1) the effectiveness of internet connectivity in reducing maternal morbidity rates; and (2) who is best suited to take responsibility for ensuring better internet connectivity to reduce maternal morbidity rates.”
Other sponsors of S 3152 include committee members Schatz, Blumenthal, Deb. Fischer (R., Neb.), Todd Young (R., Ind.), Ed Markey (D., Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), and Ed Markey (D., Mass.).
Commenting on the bill, Chairman Wicker said that there is “no reason we shouldn’t be able to expand telehealth and telemedicine into these areas.”
Other bills advanced by the committee included the Advancing Artificial Intelligence Research Act (S 3891), which would “establish a program to advance artificial intelligence (AI) research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and authorize multiple research institutes to study the benefits and challenges of AI,” according to sponsor Cory Gardner (R., Colo.); and the Fundamentally Understanding the Usability and Realistic Evolution (FUTURE) of Artificial Intelligence Act (S 3771), which would require the Commerce Department to establish a federal advisory committee on the development and implementation of artificial intelligence.
The committee also approved the nomination of Michael Walsh Jr. to be general counsel of the Commerce Department on a 14-12 party line vote. Sen. Cantwell pointed to his role in the unsuccessful attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census.
In a written statement responding to the committee’s vote on his nomination, Commissioner O’Rielly said, “It is with deep appreciation that I thank the Members of the Senate Commerce Committee, especially Chairman Wicker for his support, along with Subcommittee Chairman Thune and the other Members of the Committee, for considering and favorably recommending to the full Senate my nomination to serve a new term at the FCC. The Committee takes its constitutional role in considering nominations seriously, and I am very pleased to have garnered the support of a bipartisan majority of Members.”
In a statement, NCTA said, “We applaud the Senate Commerce Committee’s approval of Commissioner Mike O’Rielly’s renomination to the FCC for a five-year term. Throughout his career, Mike has distinguished himself by advancing policies that promote competition and continued innovation in the communications marketplace while helping Americans thrive in today’s digital world. His forward-thinking leadership has aided the FCC in modernizing the media marketplace, in removing regulatory obstacles that discourage investment, and in opening up new spectrum bands for unlicensed use that can support the continued health and growth of Wi-fi and consumer wireless technologies. We urge the Senate to confirm the Commissioner for this new term.”
Kathy Grillo, senior vice president and deputy general counsel for Verizon Communications, Inc., said, “Commissioner Michael O'Rielly has been a champion of policies that promote a healthy and dynamic communications ecosystem that serves American consumers well. Among other things, Commissioner O’Rielly has been instrumental in the FCC's efforts to identify and make available spectrum for 5G. We congratulate the Commissioner on today's committee vote, and hope that the full Senate will quickly take up his renomination.”
ACA President and Chief Executive Officer Matthew Polka said that his organization “welcomes the Senate’s reconfirmation of Michael O’Rielly as FCC Commissioner. He has long shown that he is serious and thoughtful and willing to act in the best interests of the public. From ACA Connects standpoint, we have had the good fortune to work with Commissioner O’Rielly for many years and have always found that his door is open and that he is willing to listen to the concerns of small cable and broadband operators. We look forward to continuing this relationship.”
In a statement, Charter Communications, Inc., congratulated Commissioner O’Rielly. “During his time at the FCC, Commissioner O’Rielly has demonstrated a strong commitment to creating a regulatory environment that encourages broadband buildout and has consistently promoted balanced spectrum policies that drive American innovation forward. As people across the country have become increasingly reliant on connectivity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Commissioner O’Rielly has pushed to significantly expand broadband to those who still lack access. We look forward seeing Commissioner O’Rielly’s re-nomination confirmed by the full Senate,” the company said.
Wireless Infrastructure Association President and CEO Jonathan Adelstein, a former FCC Commissioner, said, “WIA applauds the advancement of the nomination of Commissioner Michael O’Rielly by the Senate Commerce Committee to continue his outstanding service on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Commissioner O’Rielly is unquestionably of the highest caliber in character and qualifications, and he has accomplished so much in his time at the Commission. For years, he has championed broadband deployment, making spectrum more available, and winning the race to 5G. Commissioner O’Rielly’s vision, commitment, and integrity make him a slam dunk for a third term at the FCC. I urge the Senate to expeditiously re-confirm him to so that he can continue to lead the way for America’s next-generation wireless services.”
Software trade association BSA issued a statement applauding the approval of the two AI bills. “Both bills recognize that unleashing the full economic potential of AI will require careful examination of the potential unintended impacts of the technology to ensure that it is being developed in a thoughtful and responsible manner,” BSA Senior Director–policy Christian Troncoso said. “Today’s committee action is yet another indication of the growing bipartisan, bicameral recognition of the important role NIST can play in bringing stakeholders together to develop an AI risk management framework to address concerns that could undermine the public’s trust in AI. We look forward to working with Congress, committee leadership, and interested members to ensure that these provisions lay the groundwork for a truly robust and meaningful framework.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
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