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Vote on Biden’s FCC pick delayed; Sohn faces another hearing and rocky path

Gigi Sohn speaking and gesturing with her hands while testifying at a Senate hearing.
Enlarge / Gigi Sohn testifies during a Senate committee hearing on June 21, 2012.

Getty Images | Alex Wong

Although the Senate Commerce Committee was scheduled to vote yesterday on the nomination of Gigi Sohn to the Federal Communications Commission, it didn’t happen. The vote on President Joe Biden’s nomination of Sohn was delayed even as the committee voted to approve 10 other Biden nominations to various positions.

Yesterday’s delay has a logical explanation: Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) suffered a stroke last week, and Sohn’s confirmation needs his vote because of Republican opposition to the long-time consumer advocate who strongly supports reimposing net neutrality rules on broadband providers. Luján is expected to make a full recovery, but his absence could further delay Sohn’s nomination and other Democratic priorities in the 50-50 Senate. “On Wednesday an aide said that the New Mexico senator could return to work in four to six weeks, barring any complications,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

But Sohn’s nomination was already in trouble even though the Senate had plenty of time to vote on it before Luján’s health emergency. Biden nominated Sohn on October 26. The president made two other telecom choices on the same day, nominating FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel for a new term and picking Alan Davidson to lead the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Rosenworcel was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee on December 1 and by the full Senate on December 7 in a 68-31 vote. Sohn and Davidson faced questions from the Senate Commerce Committee during the same nomination hearing on December 1. Davidson gained committee approval on December 15 and was confirmed by the full Senate on January 11 in a 60-31 vote.

Sohn to face second round of questioning

But there had been no movement on Sohn’s nomination until her vote was scheduled for and them bumped from the February 2 meeting. Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) opted not to go ahead with what would have been a party-line vote—assuming all Democrats back Sohn. Comcast recently hired a new lobbyist with deep ties to Arizona, the home state of potential swing vote Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic member of the Commerce Committee.

The slow Senate process combined with Biden waiting nine months to nominate a new FCC commissioner has left the agency with a 2-2 partisan deadlock throughout his term so far. With Luján’s recovery likely delaying action on Sohn for at least a few weeks, Cantwell scheduled an additional Commerce Committee hearing on Sohn for February 9.

That’ll give senators such as Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) another chance to grill Sohn publicly, two months after a previous hearing in which they claimed she would try to censor Fox News and conservative media in general. It’s not clear when the committee will vote on Sohn’s nomination.

Republicans and the National Association of Broadcasters have also criticized Sohn on the grounds of her being a former board member at Locast, a nonprofit online TV service that shut down after losing a copyright case launched by major broadcast networks. Sohn tried to silence this controversy by agreeing to recuse herself from certain broadcast-related decisions for three years, but this is likely to be the biggest topic of discussion at next week’s hearing.

New hearing “giving oxygen to baseless claims”

Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that Sohn co-founded over 20 years ago, opposed the second hearing.

“Public Knowledge contends this unprecedented, pointless hearing risks giving oxygen to baseless claims slung by industry players at this consumer-focused nominee,” the group said yesterday. “We urge members of the committee to lay bare the real facts of what this hearing is about—hobbling the FCC at a time when it has so much important work to do… The FCC has not had a full five-member commission for the entire Biden administration and that has stalled key consumer protection priorities that President Biden has raised. Millions of Americans lack quality, high-speed broadband, and, yet, the FCC still doesn’t have authority over broadband a year into this administration. It’s time for a vote and a fully functioning FCC.”

New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) called the second hearing “a gift to AT&T, Comcast, and the other companies that have worked for years to weaken the FCC’s authority and who benefit from a deadlocked agency.” The institute added that “Sohn has been endorsed by nearly 250 organizations from across the political spectrum, including OTI, public safety officials, labor unions, civil rights organizations, and conservatives.”

Advocacy group Fight for the Future sent a letter today to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), asking him to remove Cantwell from the Commerce Committee chair. Cantwell “has repeatedly caved to disingenuous opposition from Republicans and industry lobbyists, leading to inexcusable delays in the confirmation of highly qualified FCC nominee Gigi Sohn,” the letter said.

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