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Grumblings Over Obama's Little-Known FCC Pick with a Famous Last Name

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, May 4 2009

DreamweaverAs far as big Washington jobs go, a famous last name can be a blessing or a curse. Sure, carrying the last name of, say, Pelosi is probably going to get your requests for an interview responded to with alacrity. But couple your high-profile parent with a powerful policy job with billions of dollars at stake, and things get messier. What's certainly going to make your life even worse: being a mystery to the people already inhabiting the policy world you're diving into. Folks in politics hate being caught not knowing anything about a suddenly big player in their field of expertise. (Remember those uncomfortable hours in late August of "It's pronounced Pal-in. No no, I think it's Pah-lun. Wait, no, it's Pay-len! Yes, yes, of course. And she's the uber-conservative governor of...")

Such is the uncomfortable situation Mignon L. Clyburn finds herself in this week. Clyburn has been nominated by President Obama to serve on the Federal Communications Commission, replacing Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, as the Wall Street Journal's Amy Schatz reports. For more than a decade, Clyburn has served on South Carolina's Public Service Commission, which oversees telecommunications and other utilities in the state. Before that, Clyburn was the publisher, general manager, and editor of the Coastal Times newspaper from 1984-1998. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina with a degree in banking, finance, and economics.

And, oh yeah, she's the daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn.

Though Clyburn's name has been floated as an FCC pick for some time, not much is known about her record on the South Carolina PSC. In that vacuum, there's been a scramble to frame her nomination based on we do know about the situation. And some telecom advocates are having a strongly negative initial reaction to her nod. Sascha Meinrath, a research director at the New America Foundation, titles his post "A Disaster for Public Interest?," Meinrath suggests "the dominant feeling" amongst telecom advocates is that Clyburn "is extremely tight with the telecom incumbents and that having her on the FCC will all but ensure a stalemate that will prevent any meaningful telecom reforms from being passed." If that's true, Meinrath writes, "President Obama would have really sold the public interest down the river." Meinrath argues that the rank of the paterfamilias of the Clyburn family sullies the nomination of the daughter: "Even objectively this looks like a traditional 'inside baseball' quid-pro-quo -- appointing the daughter of a powerful congressman to score political points just doesn't look good." On the blog Obsidian Wings, Publius titles his/her post on Clyburn, "Obama's Harriet Miers?"

The subtext here that helps explain the particularly charged concern with which some folks are greeting Clyburn's pick: the coziness between the Congressional Black Caucus and telecom companies, which is seen to influence CBC members' approach to stuff like broadband rollout and net neutrality. Jim Clyburn is, of course, a major figure in the CBC (and a former chairman).

Others are suggesting that, for advocates for the idea that our telecom policy should serve the public interest (whether or not that upsets AT&T), there are real reasons directly related to Mignon Clyburn's own professional record to question her nomination. Public Knowledge's Art Brodsky does what he can to extract meaning from what's known about Clyburn's work in South Carolina. Writes Brodsky, "As one telecom attorney with experience in southern state put it, if a competitive carrier went to the South Carolina commission to argue that the sky was blue, and AT&T (the former BellSouth) argued the sky was purple, the PSC would rule in favor of purple."

UPDATE: Perhaps not helpful to Clyburn's chances of winning favor amongst telecom advocates -- industry huzzahs like this from Verizon: "Commissioner Clyburn is a well-qualified candidate, and her experience will be a welcomed asset as the commission moves forward with the critical work of developing the right policies to achieve the full potential and benefits of broadband. We look forward to working with her."

(Photo credit: South Carolina Public Service Commission/Vickie Lovett)