FCC chairman Ajit Pai said Monday that he plans to depart the agency on January 20, which will create an opening to allow the incoming Joe Biden administration to form a Democratic majority on the commission.
Pai, a Republican, has been on the commission since 2012, and has been chairman through the Trump administration.
“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. “I am grateful to President Trump for giving me the opportunity to lead the agency in 2017, to President Obama for appointing me as a Commissioner in 2012, and to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and the Senate for twice confirming me. To be the first Asian-American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege. As I often say: only in America.”
Biden has not yet said who he would nominate for a new FCC chair. If his nominee to fill Pai’s spot is confirmed by the Senate, Democrats would then have a 3-2 majority.
Until then, there is a chance that the commission will be split 2-2 between the parties. The commission has two Democrats, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, and two other Republicans, Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr. Trump has nominated Nathan Simington to fill O’Rielly’s slot, but he has not been confirmed by the Senate. The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to consider his nomination Wednesday.
In his announcement, Pai emphasized his accomplishments in closing the “digital divide” and advancing 5G. He also has championed a host of moves to deregulate media ownership rules, with the Supreme Court planning to hear one case.
Pai’s most controversial move was to lead an effort to largely repeal the FCC’s net neutrality rules, a move that may be reversed with a Democratic majority.
His departure likely scuttles a Trump administration effort to modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act through the federal regulatory process. Pai had launched a rulemaking process to modify Section 230, which gives immunity to tech platforms for how they moderate third-party content. Trump, upset that Twitter had started placing fact-checking labels on his tweets, issued an executive order aimed at weakening the platforms’ legal protections. After O’Rielly expressed doubts over the effort to modify Section 230, the White House withdrew his re-nomination to the FCC and instead selected Simington for the slot.
Pai’s term extends through June 2021, but it has been a tradition for FCC chairs to step down with each incoming new administration.