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A Farewell to Commissioner McDowell and a Nod to the “Rational Regulator”

While in the works for a while, today’s formal announcement by FCC Commissioner McDowell that he will be departing the FCC leaves a hole in the FCC’s ranks that will be difficult to fill. In many regards, Commissioner McDowell was a throwback to an earlier time, both at the FCC and in Washington, in that his tenure was distinguished not just by his congenial nature, but by an abiding adherence to his regulatory principles, rather than to reaching a particular result. While I suspect he might bristle at being described as a “rational regulator”, preferring instead to be known as a “devoted deregulator”, Commissioner McDowell represented a common-sense approach to the communications industry and the business of regulating it.

Since the job of a lawyer is to obtain for a client the best result legally possible, you would think that lawyers would be big fans of the “predictable vote”–the commissioner whose policy positions are so embedded that there is little doubt as to where they will stand on any particular issue. And of course, if three of the five commissioners are on your side of an issue, that’s a pretty warm and fuzzy place to be. The problem, however, is that for every time three of the five commissioners support your position, there will be a time when three of the five do not.

For that reason, an experienced lawyer will always prefer an inquisitive and open-minded regulator over an ideologue, even when it is an ideologue that agrees with you (today). While the independent-minded regulator will make you work to persuade them each and every time, the opportunity to persuade them is never foreclosed. If you fail to persuade them that your cause is just, then the failure is yours, and not just the result of an agency formalizing a preordained result.

Over the years, the FCC has been blessed with a number of commissioners that have been particularly good at compartmentalizing natural biases, and giving the parties before them a full and fair opportunity to make their case. Probably not coincidentally, many of these same commissioners have had both a healthy sense of humor and humility, putting those around them at ease and creating an environment conducive to an open and lively discussion of the issues. A final characteristic found among this select group–and helpful to anyone in Washington–is the ability to separate the advocate from the issue, recognizing that just because you disagree with the argument that the advocate must make today on behalf of a client doesn’t diminish the advocate who, like the commissioner, is just trying to do their job to the best of their ability, and will have to make a different argument on behalf of a different client tomorrow.

Unfortunately, these characteristics are rarely those that will get you nominated by a President, or see you through a partisan confirmation process, so commissioners with all of these characteristics will inevitably tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Because of this, Commissioner McDowell will be missed by many who work at, and with, the FCC. In a town where some individuals have countdown calendars marking the number of days remaining in a particular government official’s tenure, it is perhaps the ultimate backhanded Washington compliment that the most arresting part of Commissioner McDowell’s departure announcement was where it noted he had been at the FCC for “nearly seven years.” It’s hard to believe it has been that long.