The news source for Internet policy
A service of Warren Communications News

FCC's Next Republican Seen Likely to Be a Female Economist

The Trump administration appears increasingly likely to name a female economist to the open Republican slot on the FCC, industry officials said. Two names in particular have emerged -- Roslyn Layton, American Enterprise Institute scholar and member of the Trump FCC landing team, and Michelle Connolly, professor of economics at Duke University and former FCC chief economist under Republican Chairman Kevin Martin. Key senators Tuesday indicated no consensus formed around a single candidate.

The selection of an economist could potentially underscore the focus of the current FCC on the economic analysis of regulation (see 1701310062), industry officials said. Chairman Ajit Pai is to discuss economics at a Hudson Institute event Wednesday. With the current federal hiring freeze, Pai has been constrained from bringing in more economists to join the staff.

The agency previously has had an economist as a member, Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a Republican commissioner from 1997 to 2001. Furchtgott-Roth, now at Hudson, will ask questions of Pai at the Wednesday forum. Connolly is a classically trained economist, while Layton has a doctorate in communications and focuses much of her work on economics. Other industry officials said they understand that Babette Boliek, also a visiting scholar at AEI and associate professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, may be on the short list. Boliek is an economist and lawyer. Connolly and Boliek didn't comment.

Layton told us Tuesday it's critical for the FCC to put more focus on economic analysis. “Elevating the role of economics at the FCC is long overdue,” she said. “It will depoliticize regulation and in fact, strengthen rulemaking. If the FCC can bring empirical rigor to its work, its rules are likely to be more salient, more effective, and less litigated. The discipline of economics offers a tool set to address the issues confronting the FCC today including, net neutrality, privacy, broadband deployment, and so on.”

Some other nations require that at least one economist serve on their communications regulator, Layton said. “It’s hard to imagine running a telecom authority without economics playing a central role, but unfortunately this was the case in the Obama years,” she said. “During the previous FCC, rulemaking was frequently ideological and lacked the necessary analytical, technical, and empirical heft that Americans expect from an expert, independent agency.” The hiring freeze is a potential concern for the FCC, Layton said. “Not only does the federal government impose restrictions that thwart hiring the best people for the job, it creates a mismatch of skills and mission among federal agencies, especially at the FCC,” she said. “It’s no surprise that the demotion of economics at the agency was coupled with a marked decline in the ranking of the FCC in the annual 'Best Places to Work Survey.'”

Economists Sought

It makes sense to bring more rigorous economic analysis to the commission’s deliberations, and having some additional economic expertise at both the commission and staff level would be useful, all things equal,” said Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation. “There are economists of all philosophical stripes, including those with pronounced pro-regulatory leanings and those that are free market-oriented.” Just any economist “won’t do,” May said. “Layton and Connolly have a free market-orientation, and I think both should be considered solid candidates.”

Adding an economist to the eighth floor “makes an awful lot of sense, especially if the hiring freeze is preventing broader reforms to promote an elevated role for technical analysis over lawyering at the commission,” said Doug Brake, senior telecom analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “I worry though, this administration does not seem in a rush to fill positions, and I’m not sure where the FCC falls on the priority list for nominations. Sure, the FCC can function with three, and the votes may come out more or less the same. But the balance that comes with two additional views is a real advantage for good policymaking. The three we already have are great, but five heads are better than three.”

Others said economic analysis shouldn't trump other concerns at the FCC. The agency could use more commissioners with a relevant technical background, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at New America. “An economist could help diversify the perspectives brought to bear, although an engineer or technologist might be even more useful,” Calabrese said. “Whatever the appointee's background, it's also critical to remember that much of the FCC's mandate is about promoting American values like free speech and universal service. By law, economic analysis must come a distant second to those primary considerations.”

Just like a law degree, economics expertise can be used to serve the public interest or a cramped corporate agenda instead,” said Matt Wood, Free Press policy director. “Dressing up bad policy choices in a bunch of cooked numbers and flawed analyses will do nothing to improve them.”

Staff Expertise

Mark Jamison, like Layton a member of the Trump transition landing team and AEI scholar, said appointing an economist as a commissioner will have only limited impact. “The key is improving economics" at the staff level, Jamison told us. “While having a commissioner with an economics background is valuable and has been required in some countries, it doesn’t solve the problem of too little economic analysis.”

Lack of economic analysis over the last eight years wasn’t for want of economists at the FCC,” said Fred Campbell, director of Tech Knowledge. “It was the result of Democratic Party leadership that no longer supports the validity of economic theory or the ability of competitive market forces to protect consumers from economic harm.”

Senate Republicans on the Commerce Committee told us they’re following the process but lack certainty about who may receive the nod. The Senate's two Mississippi Republicans -- Sens. Roger Wicker, chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, and Thad Cochran -- were pushing last month for the nomination of C Spire Vice President Ben Moncrief (see 1703100061).

I have not had a conversation about it in over a week,” Wicker said Tuesday, then chuckled: “It would be nice to have somebody that knows a lot about telecom. That would be my view.” He said he wasn't familiar with Moncrief’s past tweets critical of President Donald Trump (see 1703150030).

Several other senators told us they hadn't recommended anyone in particular. “I’m interested, but I haven’t seen any developments,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., also said they weren't pushing any particular candidate. “I know there’s a few names out there, but I haven’t heard anything definite,” said Fischer. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, hasn't recommended anyone, his spokesman said. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said last month the ideal scenario would be to wrap this nomination in with a reconfirmation vote on another term for Pai and the nominee for the open Democratic spot (see 1703080044).