Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said Thursday that he’ll step down from his post on Jan. 20, 2017. Wheeler was appointed by President Obama three years ago to lead the FCC. Prior to his October 2013 confirmation as the 31st chairman of the FCC, Wheeler served as managing director at venture capital firm Core Capital Partners. He was president of NCTA (now “the Internet & Television Association”) from 1979 to 1984 and led the CTIA (now “the Wireless Association”) from 1992 to 2004.
Wheeler’s announced departure is not unusual, as FCC chairmen traditionally resign when a new Administration arrives. “Sitting in this chair has been the great privilege of my professional career,” Wheeler said as the FCC’s open commission meeting on Thursday concluded. “I want to thank all of my colleagues. It has been a team effort.”
Tom Wheeler’s tenure at the FCC is highlighted by an expansive interpretation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) in a series of rulings culminating in the Commissioners’ landmark 2015 declaratory order. That order, the capstone of Wheeler’s pro-TCPA faction at the FCC, expanded the reach of the TCPA in multiple ways and significantly increased risks for businesses of all types attempting to contact consumers by telephone. These rulings have facilitated a tidal wave of TCPA litigation that set new records every year, as well as and hundreds of millions of dollars of litigation settlements by legitimate businesses making legitimate calls for legitimate reasons. If TCPA filing activity holds steady through December, it could reach 5,000 lawsuits filed in 2016 alone.
In October 2016, the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia Circuit heard oral arguments in ACA International, et al. v. FCC, appealing the 2015 declaratory order. Also pending is control of the FCC shifting to a majority that is likely to reflect the view that the FCC has fundamentally overstepped its bounds in its aggressive regulatory acts. While it is too soon to know whether the shift in control will result in a dramatic shift in regulatory direction, there are a number of relatively easy measures the new majority to take actions to significantly shift the regulatory status quo under the TCPA to scale back the most extreme parts of the FCC’s current positions. Between the pending appeal and the change in control at the FCC, 2017 is shaping up to a watershed year for the TCPA.
In the interim, Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai is expected to be named interim chairman. He’s also seen as a contender for appointment as Chairman by President-Elect Donald Trump.