There's something a bit different about Tom Wheeler, nominated today by President Barack Obama to head the Federal Communications Commission.
It’s not his work as a lobbyist or venture capitalist - rather, it's that unlike practically every other chairman in the agency's 79-year history, Wheeler is not a lawyer.
To be sure, Wheeler by all accounts knows the industry well, heading two major trade groups for years. As Obama put it today in remarks at the White House, "Tom is the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame. So he’s like the Jim Brown of telecom… Tom knows this stuff inside and out."
Still, he lacks the law degree that has been a qualification of almost all of the FCC’s past leaders.
Outgoing chair Julius Genachowski went to Harvard Law School, as did his predecessor, Kevin Martin. Michael Powell got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, while William Kennard and Reed Hundt went to Yale Law School.
True, non-lawyer Michael Copps served as acting chair for a few months in 2009, and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, also not a lawyer, will serve as acting chair after Genachowski leaves in mid-May and while Wheeler’s confirmation is pending. But the last U.S. Senate-confirmed chair who wasn’t a lawyer was Robert E. Lee, who led the agency for three months in 1981. And the last non-lawyer to serve a full term as chairman was Wayne Coy, a Democrat from Indiana who headed the FCC from late 1947 until 1952.
Telecom lawyers who know Wheeler predict he’ll do just fine without a J.D., pointing to his nearly three decades of experience in the telecom industry. He was president of the National Cable Television Association from 1979 to 1984 and led the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association from 1992 until 2004. Wheeler also founded multiple start-ups offering cable, wireless and video communications services. He’s currently a managing director at Core Capital Partners.
"The FCC chairman must be a policy expert, and lawyers are often good at public policy. But you can be great at policy without being a lawyer, and Tom has already proved his policy expertise," said Samuel Feder, who chairs Jenner & Block's communications practice and previously served as FCC general counsel. "I expect Tom Wheeler to be an excellent chairman."
Richard Wiley, who was chairman of the FCC from 1974 until 1977 and is now a name partner at Wiley Rein, agreed. “Not being a lawyer won’t handicap him,” Wiley said. “He has unparalleled experience in the communications field and, undoubtedly, will surround himself with expert legal advisors.”
Current FCC chairman Genachowski employs five legal advisors and a chief of staff, who is also a lawyer.
Scott Blake Harris, a former top FCC official and previous general counsel of the Department of Energy, also expressed confidence in Wheeler. “Tom will bring both sound judgment and unparalleled industry experience to the chairmanship of the FCC,” Harris said. “He is a believer in competition and in the value of disruptive technologies. He will find the sweet spot that will both benefit consumers and encourage economic growth in the sector.”