Adelstein To Go To RUS, But When?

In a not entirely unexpected move, FCC Commissioner Jonathon Adelstein will shift over to the RUS program. One would be hard put to think of anyone better qualified to oversee spending to stimulate rural broadband deployment (granted, as regular readers know, I am huge fan of Adelstein’s and hardly impartial). Adelstein comes from a rural state (South Dakota) and has long been a champion of rural issues — particularly broadband and wireless deployment — at the FCC. Overseeing a program to spend $2.5B explicitly on rural broadband seems tailor made for Adelstein, especially if this is just the “down payment” for making sure that we make the benefits of high-speed access available to all Americans.

When Adelstein will get a chance to shift over, however, is less clear. The FCC has dropped down to the bare minimum for a functioning quorum of three commissioners. The Administration has now officially nominated Julius Genachowski for FCC chair. In theory, the Senate could hold a hearing, confirm Genachowski, and then shift Adelstein over to RUS at any time. In practice, however, some other considerations intervene. And while a few months might not normally make much difference in the grand scheme of things, the RUS, like the NTIA, is very busy at the moment setting the ground rules for the availability of the stimulus money. No one wants to show up after the rules are already settled, especially if you have some significant experience that would give you some strong ideas on how to spend the money effectively.

Some elaboration and speculation below . . . .

As I said above, normally we would expect the Senate to just move these nominations along. Neither is controversial. If Genachowski were going to have a tax problem, we’d know it by now, and Adelstein has been confirmed twice as an FCC Commissioner. But things rarely work so smoothly here in DC.

First, folks like to do the FCC Commissioners as a package, with Republican and Democratic nominees balancing things out. The FCC has three effective vacancies at the moment, 2 D one R. At a minimum, we would expect Obama to name the missing R as part of the package with Genachowski. Ideally, Obama would name all three Commissioners and they would just cycle through. But the Obama people have not named either Adelstein’s D replacement or the incoming R. Yes, conventional wisdom has it that Mingon Clyburn, daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) is the odds on favorite, and no one has heard of any other names being debated. But even assuming she is the one (and, if the events of the last few months teach us anything, it is never to assume until a nomination is made, accepted, and confirmed by the Senate), that still leaves an R to be named.

This might not slow things down on its own, but we then move to the second consideration. The DTV transition is now scheduled to happen June 12. That’s close enough in the future that it makes little sense to bump acting-Chairman Michael Copps back down to Commissioner until after he manages the regulatory equivalent of the Miracle on the Hudson. Leaving aside the fact that Copps deserves to see this through, after spending years warning about how the transition was being mishandled and then had to take over at the (almost) last minute, it makes no sense to bring the agency to a stand still while a new Chairman comes on to take over the reigns.

The problem with that is that it means Genachowski is unlikely to come on until late June or even July — giving Copps time to manage the transition and the inevitable clean-up/assessment. Which would leave Adelstein stuck at the FCC until late June/early July, by which time RUS expects to have rules settled and actually be handing out money. That’s outrageously no fun for Adelstein, and not very good for the program overall. The fact that the circumstances have forced NTIA and RUS to settle these programs under acting heads is highly unusual and places the future agency heads in something of a bind.

But unlike whoever heads up NTIA (widely rumored to be Larry Strickling, but, as I noted with Clyburn, nothing is certain until after it happens), Adelstein is not wholly shut out of the process at this stage. As an FCC Commissioner, he is well positioned to be in the thick of things. The ARRA (America Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus statute) explicitly requires coordination between the FCC and NTIA on the broadband mapping and national broadband plan (the broadband national plan notice of inquiry is on the FCC’s open meeting agenda for April). Nothing therefore prevents Adelstein from playing an active role in the decisionmaking around the stimulus, especially as acting Chairman Copps, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, and Acting NTIA Asst. Sec. Anna Gomez made it clear from the opening meeting that the three relevant agencies would work closely together, as well as coordinate with other agencies giving stimulus money that deals with broadband build out.

So while I imagine Adelstein must be eager to move on to RUS, I would not be surprised if it did not happen until summer. Mind you, the Obama team could decide it is sufficient critical to have Adelstein in the driver’s seat earlier that they either nominate his replacement before Genachowski or birng Genachowski off the bench early. But even if they don’t, Adelstein is not locked out of the process until his RUS nomination is confirmed. While it is always a pain in the neck to be stuck in nomination limbo, Adelstein’s experiences with his FCC nomination and renominations have certainly taught him how to be patient and hold his cards to his chest.

Stay tuned . . . .

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