FCC hires general counsel amid rules overhaul

Oct 26, 2017
The commission this week removed regulatory requirements

The Federal Communications Commission has recruited Thomas Johnson, Jr as general counsel, at a time when it is seeking to remove a number of regulations governing the industry. 

Johnson was previously deputy solicitor general for West Virginia attorney general Patrick Morrisey. He has also worked at law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and as a law clerk for Judge Jerry Smith of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. 

‘I congratulate Tom on receiving this tremendous opportunity,’ Morrisey says in a statement. ‘Tom most recently led our office’s successful defense of the state’s Workplace Freedom Act and has repeatedly played a valuable role in our fight against federal overreach, including the dismantling of the Obama-era, job-killing Power Plan.’

Nick Degani had been serving as acting general counsel, before switching back to his role as senior counsel in the office of agency chair Ajit Pai.

The FCC’s office of general counsel serves as the chief legal adviser to the commission and its various bureaus and offices. It also represents the commission in litigation, recommends decisions in adjudicatory matters, assists the commission in its decision-making capacity and performs a variety of legal functions regarding internal and other administrative matters.

‘Because we cannot stray beyond the authority granted to us by Congress, the general counsel is one of the most important positions at the FCC,’ Pai says in a statement.

Johnson joins the FCC at a time when, under Republican leadership following the election of President Donald Trump, it is pursuing a broadly deregulatory agenda. The commission in May launched an initiative designed to reduce what officials call in a filing ‘unnecessary regulation that can impede competition and innovation in media markets.’ 

Pai stated in congressional testimony this week that the commission has ‘actively sought to repeal and revise outdated rules.’ He was also widely reported to have said that the FCC intends to make major changes to media ownership rules by removing or severely curtailing limits on acquiring local TV stations and newspapers.

The commission earlier this week took steps to remove other regulatory obligations. It eliminated the requirement that US providers of international telecommunications services file annual traffic and revenue reports, and streamlined the requirements for filing circuit capacity reports.

Doing so will minimize the costs to the industry and the commission, and the FCC will instead rely on targeted data requests to international service providers and third-party commercial data sources, officials say in a related filing.

The commission also removed a rule requiring radio and TV broadcast stations to have a main studio located in or near their local communities. The rule was designed to facilitate input from community members and a station’s participation in community activities, but the public can now access information online and stations and community members can interact via email, social media and the telephone, officials write. They describe the main studio rule as ‘outdated and unnecessarily burdensome.’ 

In addition, the FCC this week proposed rule changes under which certain TV broadcasters would no longer need to file annual reports about so-called ancillary or supplementary services. These are services some broadcasters provide using their spectrum in addition to their free, over-the-air television programming, such as subscription video. The FCC proposes that only broadcasters earning revenue from these services, and therefore paying a fee to the commission, would need to file annual reports.

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