Why You Should Treat Any Predictions About Telecom/Tech Policy in 2019 Skeptically.

Under Section 217, Paragraph (b), sub (1) of the “wonk code of conduct,” I am required to provide some immediate analysis on what the election means for my area of expertise (telecom/tech, if you were wondering). So here goes.

 

  1. Everyone will still pretend to care deeply about the digital divide, particularly the rural digital divide.
  2. The MPAA, RIAA and all the usual suspects are probably already shopping their wish lists. This is great news to any recently elected member of staffer who was worried about needing to get tickets to “Fantastic Beasts” or whatever other blockbuster they will screen at MPAA HQ.
  3. Everyone will still talk about the vital importance of “winning” the “race to 5G” while having no clue what that actually means.

These predictions rank up there with “New England Patriots will play football, and everyone outside of New England will hate them” or “The media will spend more time covering celebrity ‘feuds’ than on major health crises like the famine in Yemen or Ebola outbreak in Congo.” They are more like natural laws of the universe than actual predictions. As for substance, y’all remember that Trillion dollar infrastructure bill Trump was gonna do in 2017? I suspect predictions about how federal policy is going to sort itself out will be just as reliable.

 

Why? Because at this stage there are just too many dang meta-questions unresolved. So rather than try to predict things, I will explain what pieces need to fall into place first.

 

Also, it’s worth noting that we had action on the state level that impacts tech and telecom. Start with Phil Weiser winning the election for State AG in Colorado. As Jon Oliver recently pointed out, don’t underestimate the importance of state AGs. This is particularly true for a tech savvy AG in a techie state. Then there is California’s governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who tried to address the digital divide as Mayor of San Francisco with a community wireless network back when people were trying that. Will he continue to make digital divide a major issue? But I’ll stick to my forte of federal policy for the moment.

 

Anyway, rather than try to predict what the policy will be, here’s what is going to have clarify first.

 

What Will Be Trump’s Relationship With Congressional Dems?

 

If there is one thing that became completely clear last night, it is Trump’s absolute control over the Republican Party. Rs consistently over-performed their polls in states where Trump is popular. For the Republican Party, that came at a fairly substantial cost in terms of losing a bunch of Congressional districts. But the point here isn’t to ask whether the trade was worth it or not. It’s a thing. Republicans in Congress in both Houses are going to let Trump call the tune and follow his lead on just about everything.

 

Now Trump has shown just about no interest in telecom and tech policy other than to complain when he feels he (or Republicans generally) are mistreated. (That’s not unusual, btw. Obama was the exception for taking such strong personal interest in these policy areas.) In theory, that leaves Ds and Rs to work stuff out. But a big issue is whether Trump will try to be a ‘dealmaker’ or go into full combat mode. I grant today’s Tweets and press conference are not encouraging. But we have no idea what Trump will do in terms of longer-term relationship. That’s the virtue of being Trump.

 

If Trump goes all confrontational, then nothing gets done in Congress. Period. It doesn’t matter how much Dems try to go all bipartisan or act like wussies in the hopes Trump will grab them. If Trump declares eternal war on Democrats, we can pretty much forget about getting anything done between now and 2021. OTOH, if Trump decides he wants to set himself up as ‘solving gridlock’ for his reelection campaign, then we could see some efforts to try to move things.

 

Who Will Lead The Democrats?

 

We’ve had plenty of foreshadowing over the last few weeks that there will likely be a leadership fight. I haven’t checked how many of the newly elected Ds were the ones who publicly pledged to vote against Pelosi. But with a fairly thin majority, Pelosi can’t afford too many defections. Additionally, the the newly elected Dems are not your previous breed of Blue Dog that got hunted to near extinction during the Obama years by Republicans. No, most of them are not Democratic Socialists in the mode of Ocasio-Cortez. But they fall into two categories. Folks who pledged they wouldn’t be mere cyphers for Pelosi and/or folks who were elected by Trump Loathers who expect to see not just #resistance, but #RESISTANCE.

 

In a normal year, you would expect seniority to dictate outcomes. But it’s not clear this will be a normal yer. To survive, Pelosi may need to bribe a bunch of progressives and/or new members with choice committee seats or leadership positions. She may need to agree to prioritize certain things. Or she may even lose a Speaker fight. While I would consider that wildly unlikely, I have basically given up on making predictions based on historical precedent and the normal rules of politics. Anything can happen, and I am not going to try to guess what that does to the telecom and tech agenda until that settles.

 

How Much Trouble Will This Be For Pai?

 

If we assume that the Commerce Committee stays reasonably constant, what does that do for Pai? Frankly, the level of anger and frustration felt by Democrats for Pai is fairly high. He is also a relatively easy target (easier than Trump, anyway) for #RESISTANCE. Blackburn, who had been a major policy ally, is gone to the Senate. Given that Ds are unlikely to be doing much legislating for the reasons discussed above, hearings and investigations is a major way to show you are #RESISTANCE — especially against the guy regarded by many as the best buddy of the media companies they hate.

 

And it’s not just Commerce. It’s Oversight and Budget as well. And there are lots of issues to discuss. Rural broadband and the God-awful FCC maps. Media consolidation. Telecom mergers. Competition generally. Consumer protection and the high cost of all things media and telecom. Our general lack of competition. Emergency preparedness. And, of course, our bestest buddy, net neutrality.

 

I am skeptical of the perpetual rumors that swirl around Pai possibly leaving the FCC to go run for office. I’ve heard variations on that since Michael Powell was chair. But as anyone from the Wheeler FCC can tell you, dealing with constant hearings and oversight investigations takes time — and is not particularly fun. How all this potentially plays out wrt FCC productivity and Pai kicking or sticking is impossible to guess at this point, and I don’t intend to try.

 

Conclusion

 

For all these reasons, I’m very reluctant to try to make any predictions Heck, in the time since I started writing this, Tester was confirmed as winner in MT. While Republicans are assured control of the Senate, the size of the majority matters — especially when considering who ends up on which Committees. The fact that Dems could arguably hold on to Florida and possibly pick up AZ emphasizes just how ridiculous it is to try to make real predictions at this point.

 

Stay tuned . . .

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