The nation’s telecommunications regulator has been without a Democratic majority for the entirety of President Biden’s 21-month tenure, hamstringing efforts to restore open internet protections and close the digital divide.
Breaking the deadlock at the Federal Communications Commission hinges on confirming Gigi Sohn, a longtime public interest advocate and former Democratic FCC official who was first nominated by the White House nearly a year ago. As the midterm elections approach and Democrats’ ability to retain their narrow control of the Senate remains uncertain, Sohn’s supporters are warning Congress that the clock is ticking to lock in a majority at the agency.
On Friday, about 250 industry and public interest groups wrote a letter to top Senate leaders calling for a vote on Sohn’s nomination before Congress adjourns at the end of the year.
“The FCC needs a full commission as it begins to deliberate on upcoming critical decisions that will have profound impacts on the economy and the American people,” leaders from groups including the Consumer Technology Association, Rural Wireless Association and Color Of Change wrote in a letter shared exclusively with The Washington Post.
The push from Sohn’s supporters follows what her allies describe as an unprecedented effort from some telecommunications and media lobbyists to block her nomination. Biden’s failure to secure a majority or full complement of commissioners at the FCC marks one of the longest delays in recent memory for a first-term president.
“It’s insane,” said Greg Guice, the director of Public Knowledge’s government affairs team who has worked in roles related to tech regulation for more than 20 years. (Sohn previously worked at Public Knowledge, which is among the signatories of the Friday letter). Lobbyists “know that being down one seat means they can better control the agenda,” he said.
The stakes for industry are high: During the Trump administration, the then Republican-led agency advanced a wave of deregulation, reversing Obama-era net neutrality protections and eliminating decades-old rules that preserve media diversity in local markets. With a majority again, Democrats are expected to reverse those moves.
Sohn’s nomination also comes as the federal government is expected to soon invest an unprecedented amount of funding in expanding internet access, following the infrastructure legislation that Congress passed last year. That legislation directed the agency to develop rules to address discrimination in internet access on the basis of income level or race. There are widespread inequities in how broadband is delivered, and new rules under a Democratic FCC could create more costs for major internet service providers.
Since the White House began vetting her for the position in the spring of 2021, Sohn has largely been sidelined from publicly commenting on telecommunications policy. Over the last year, she’s been frequently attacked as a partisan in publications including Fox News, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages. The process has taken a personal toll, opening Sohn up to threatening phone calls and emails and name-calling. Sohn, who would be the first openly gay FCC commissioner, has also faced attacks on her sexual orientation.
“It’s a tragedy,” said Gary Shapiro, the president of CTA and a friend of Sohn. “We can’t even let people we disagree with get into positions anymore without attacking them personally.”
Sohn’s nomination has seen fierce opposition from congressional Republicans, and some companies appear to be taking steps to target moderate Democrats who could decide her nomination.
Comcast this year paid former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) and his firm $30,000 to lobby on the “Status of FCC nominations,” among other issues, according to a July disclosure filing. Sohn is the only pending nomination for the commission.
The company in January also tapped a former state lawmaker who served alongside Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), widely seen as a crucial swing vote on the Sohn nomination, to lobby on FCC nominations. The filing disclosing the lobbying focus was later resubmitted and amended to scrub mention of the FCC nomination, as news outlets reported at the time. Comcast also retained Larry Puccio, the former top aide to Sen. Joe Manchin III, another critical Democrat to lobby on telecommunications issues, though it did not mention nominations.
Preston Padden, a former top executive at Fox and Disney, said he could recall no other occasion where companies “microtargeted” specific lawmakers to oppose a FCC nominee.
“What Comcast has done to Gigi Sohn in my experience is absolutely unprecedented,” Padden said.
The filings do not indicate how the groups lobbied on the nominations or other issues. Comcast did not return a request for comment. The company has previously declined to comment on lobbying filings.
“The Daschle Group did not lobby for or against any nominations,” Daschle’s vice president, Veronica Pollock, said. “We consistently track the status of nominations and share updates with clients when there is movement in Congress.”
Telecommunications companies are among the most formidable lobbying forces in Washington, but Sohn’s supporters say it’s impossible to calculate how much the industry has spent to specifically oppose her nomination because such figures are not broken out in federal lobbying disclosures. AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and T-Mobile have spent over $23 million combined lobbying Washington so far this year, with Comcast leading the pack at $7.4 million, according to data from OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks spending on campaign finance and lobbying.
David Segal, founder of the left-leaning advocacy group Demand Progress, said the telecom lobby “still wields extraordinary political power” in Washington, which companies have used to stymie efforts to address what he called their “increasingly extractive business models.” And they stand to benefit from a Sohn-less FCC, he said.
“The Biden administration has been strong on competition policy, and the FCC has important jurisdiction there that can’t be deployed to full effect without a full commission,” he said.
The telecom giants have declined to publicly campaign against Sohn’s nomination, and some have said they have remained neutral behind closed doors.
AT&T spokesperson Alex Byers told The Post in a statement in May, “We have not taken a position on Gigi Sohn’s nomination, have not asked any third-party organization to take a position, and have not funded any campaigns against her nomination.”
Congressional Republicans have called into question Sohn’s commitment to bipartisanship, citing her old tweets criticizing conservative news outlet Fox News. Sohn has pushed back on the claims.
“In Ms. Sohn, President Biden has nominated someone who cannot fulfill part of the responsibilities of FCC commissioner, and whose record strongly suggests that she cannot be relied upon to fulfill any of her responsibilities in an impartial manner,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said during a March floor speech. All 14 Republicans on the key Senate Commerce Committee opposed advancing her nomination.
Sohn’s confirmation has also been bedeviled by procedural factors and complications in the 50-50 Senate. A committee vote on her nomination was delayed during the absence of a key Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, and she has to overcome additional hurdles because that vote split evenly on party lines.
Revolving Door Project director Jeff Hauser, whose watchdog group tracks federal appointments, said a scarcity of floor time and “outdated” Senate protocols have stymied Democrats’ ability to quickly confirm nominees. The dynamic has forced Senate Democrats to make difficult choices about which appointees to prioritize, particularly as they push to confirm an array of judicial nominees before potentially losing control of Congress.
“Obama-era Democrats did not prioritize judicial nomination, and it is overdue progress that Biden and Schumer have done much better on that front. But judicial confirmations alone will not make the lame duck remotely successful,” Hauser said, adding that “it is urgent that they fill vacuums at independent agencies.”
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) declined to comment on timing for a potential floor vote on Sohn.
The White House reaffirmed its commitment to Sohn’s nomination in a statement Wednesday.
“We’ve been working relentlessly with Congress to get a confirmation vote,” White House spokesperson Olivia Dalton said. “The majority of the FCC hangs in the balance and we want Sohn’s talents, expertise and experience at the Commission.”
The FCC said in a statement that despite the deadlock, the agency has made progress on broadband access, network security and other initiatives.
“While we look forward to the Commission having a full dais again, we’ve done a lot with a 2-2 bench and will continue to do so on behalf of the American people,” the agency said in a statement.