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Ajit Pai wanted to blow the whistle on his agency’s plans to police the newsroom, but he was sleep deprived. The 41-year-old Republican FCC Commissioner had a baby daughter in October, leading to many sleepless nights.
Pai had become fully aware of the “Critical Information Needs” (CIN) study last December, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter expressing their concerns.
The FCC was moving quickly with the study. The agency had spent $500,000 planning a study that would have involved grilling editors in 280 newsrooms over how they decide which stories to run.
Increasingly alarmed, Pai decided his best option would be to write an editorial to draw attention to the study. If word got out, the public would do the rest.
“I didn’t have a conversation with the chairman or the other commissioners,” he told the Washington Free Beacon. “Under the agency’s rules we don’t have a chance to vote or otherwise publicly have input on either the contracts or designing studies like this. So that’s why I thought the op-ed would be a better way to draw public attention to this issue.”
Pai’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal was published on Feb. 10. Two weeks later the study was dead. The article had taken a life of its own, drawing outcry across the political spectrum from Fox News to the Atlantic.
“One of the things that all of us prize, whether we come from a particular political persuasion, is the fact that freedom of the press is just that, that the government does not decide for the American people what information is critical and what is not,” Pai said. “The notion that a contractor tasked by the government identifying critical information needs and then studying how independent, private news organizations meet those needs, that’s not a notion I think has a lot of resonance with anyone in this country.”
“And I think that’s what you saw.”
Pai is often modest about his achievements. From the outset of our interview, he credits his parents for inculcating in him the values of hard work, education, and family.
It seems his life has always revolved around regulation. Born the son of Indian immigrants in Buffalo, N.Y., his family moved to Canada when he was four months old. His parents left Toronto after completing their medical residencies, fearing the regulatory environment would hamper their career aspirations.
“One of the reasons why they wanted to come back to the United States is because they saw that the Canadian marketplace for doctors was highly regulated,” Pai said. “[There was] much less opportunity for them to be doctors, and entrepreneurial.”
“One of the things they loved about Kansas was that it was a small town where they could raise kids in a good environment, and also it was a market that allowed them to apply their talents to the maximum,” he said. “And so they didn’t have to be government employees, they could be more entrepreneurial.”
Pai did not know he had the “political bug” until he was at Harvard, where he graduated with a B.A. with honors in 1994.
At Parsons Senior High, his small public school in Kansas, Pai never had the chance to study the great scholars of economics, history, and political philosophy. Once in Cambridge, he found those subjects to be squarely in his “wheelhouse.”
“I started gravitating to more of the humanities courses,” he said. “I ended up majoring in something called ‘Social Studies,’ which is something very few Indian parents want to hear their kids majoring in, but for me it was just intellectually fascinating.”
His interest drew him to pursue law, something his doctor parents took some time to warm up to.
“I started off thinking, as a lot of Indian-American kids did back then, that I was going to be a doctor, because my parents were doctors,” he said. “I can still remember when I told them I was going to law school instead of medical school.”
“They were a little bit worried, because in their minds lawyers were either criminal defense lawyers or medical malpractice plaintiffs attorneys,” Pai said. “There was nothing else.”
“So they weren’t sure what that meant, but once I actually got to law school and started working they came to appreciate the choice.”
Pai’s worldview that a market is best when it is free from costly government rules and intervention was cemented from an unlikely source: President Barack Obama’s former regulatory czar Cass Sunstein.
“It’s kind of counterintuitive because he obviously takes one view of regulation,” said Pai, who studied under Sunstein at the University of Chicago Law School. “I’m sure you’re familiar with his work on ‘nudging,’ the government’s role of nudging people towards certain behaviors. What I loved about him though, aside from the fact that he was a great lecturer, he really forced you to honestly confront the dilemma of regulation, which is that it’s an imperfect tool to solving problems.”
While Sunstein and Pai disagree when it comes to regulation, he taught Pai the importance of cost-benefit-analysis.
“The first step is to ascertain what the nature of the problem is,” Pai, who grew up a Democrat, said. “He came to it with an appreciation of the fact that the government sometimes can’t figure out what exactly the problem is.”
“There’s always a cost to regulation and cost-benefit analysis was something that he stressed a lot,” he said. “He was intellectually honest enough to acknowledge the line had to be drawn.”
“I can’t think of a more important principle in regulation,” Pai added. “The government shouldn’t be doing something unless it’s going to produce more benefits than costs.”
David Currie, a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, and Martin Feldstein, an economics professor at Harvard, were also instrumental in Pai’s road to the right. Though liberal, Currie ingrained in Pai a respect for the constitution. Feldstein, the former chair of Council of Economic Advisors under Ronald Reagan, taught Pai the laws of supply and demand.
“People are liberal or conservative, but if they share the same understanding about how economics works, they can at least agree on a basic set of core principles,” he said.
“I slowly but surely started gravitating over to the Republican side.”
Following law school, Pai clerked for Martin L.C. Feldman, a federal judge in New Orleans, who pushed him to apply for the anti-trust division in the Justice Department. He later went to work as an associate general counsel for Verizon, but couldn’t shake the allure of politics.
He served as deputy chief counsel for two subcommittees on the Senate Judiciary Committee, before moving to the FCC in 2007. Four years later, Pai was named as the Republican commissioner, after being handpicked by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).
“As much as I wish I could say that my career had a lot of careful planning behind it, I tended to just follow the opportunities,” Pai said. “I was lucky enough to have at every stage an interesting opportunity to serve in a public service position, and I took it at just about every juncture. When this came along, of course, I leapt at the chance.”
Pai is as adamant about keeping the Internet free as he is about keeping government out of the newsroom. Up next for the commissioner are several issues involving Internet regulation, including the FCC’s response to a D.C. circuit court striking down the Obama administration’s net neutrality rule in January.
“Management of the Internet is, arguably, one of the most important questions of the 21st century,” Pai said. “Thus far, my own view is that it’s thrived precisely because government has taken a more hands-off role. If the government decides to take a more hands-on role, that’s something for everybody—but especially conservatives—to take a look at.”
Pai doesn’t have a grand strategy for the rest of his term, which ends in 2016. He operates under an “open door” philosophy at the FCC, and said some of his best ideas come from average Americans writing in about their concerns.
“A lot of people think that FCC commissioners are inaccessible, sit way up high on the ivory tower and issue their pronouncements, that’s not the way I operate,” he said. “I’ve really had a chance to hear from and meet with a lot of people from across the country, and that’s part of the job.”
Since blowing the whistle on the FCC’s newsroom study, he has received an outpouring of support.
“Folks from Alaska to Florida, from Maine to California have written in, and those are the communications that I really cherish,” he said. “It’s kind of good to know, because when you’re sitting here doing this job a lot of times you think, ‘Okay, it’s only folks within the beltway who are going to pay attention to this, or executives in the communications industry.’ It’s good to know that what we do here matters to Americans across the country.”
Pai is not without his detractors, and being the first commissioner on Twitter has made it easy for his critics to express their disapproval.
“I knew going in that this was something that would touch a nerve among people, whether for good or bad,” he said. “On the bad side, of course, I’ve gotten my share of nasty email, and I’m on Twitter, so a lot of folks have not been hesitant about making clear their view that I’m … off my rocker,” he said, with a laugh.
“I welcome the criticism,” Pai said. “I’m certainly not perfect.”
Being a minority can make some of the criticism especially brutal. Just last week Lauren Wilson, the policy counsel for Free Press, a fierce opponent of Pai’s, issued a tweet that said, “Commissioner Pai has a newfound concern for [people of color]. Dear Commissioner: YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US.”
The tweet came in response to Pai’s opposition to the FCC’s attempt to restrict joint sales agreements (JSAs), which are predominately used by minorities and allow local TV stations to sell advertising to other stations.
Wilson later deleted the tweet, and apologized, saying the expression is a “pop culture euphemism that has become popular on Twitter.”
Pai brushed it off.
“It’s just another day at the office.”