Jun 3, 2022 - Technology

Clock running out on Biden's stymied FCC nominee

Illustrated collage of a hand with a surgical glove on holding a stopwatch.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Congress hasn't budged on President Biden's pick for a key tie-breaking FCC seat as the clock ticks down on the chance for a vote.

Why it matters: Without confirmation of Biden's nominee, Gigi Sohn, the communications regulator will remain deadlocked — hobbling efforts to enact the administration's agenda of expanding broadband access and promoting digital equity.

State of play: If Sohn, a lawyer and co-founder of the tech and telecom advocacy group Public Knowledge, doesn't win a vote before summer recess, Democrats could lose their chance to fill the seat should Republicans take control of Congress in November.

  • The White House says it "continues to strongly back" Sohn. But sources tell Axios that Democrats don't currently have the votes after nearly eight months of drama around her nomination.

Yes, but: There are still efforts behind the scenes to court moderate Democrats, but Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) remains undecided, his office said, and Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) is still evaluating her nomination, his office told Axios.

  • Pulling Sohn's nomination would leave the White House trying to squeeze a new nominee through the Senate on a very short timeline.

Catch up quick: The five-seat FCC has been at two Democrats and two Republicans since the start of the Biden administration.

  • Biden was historically slow in picking his nominees for the agency, announcing in late October that Jessica Rosenworcel would be the permanent chairwoman and nominating Sohn, a former FCC adviser, to the third commission seat.

Between the lines: Sohn, seen as the progressives' pick for the agency, faced an uphill battle as opponents seized on outspoken tweets, her involvement with a company hated by the broadcast industry and the opportunity to keep the FCC at 2-2.

  • The opposition to Sohn ranges from the Fraternal Order of Police to former Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp, who criticized her in a blog post. Sohn supporters include the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association.
  • Sohn is a longtime advocate on many issues, and "when you're an advocate for a side, you can make enemies and opponents on the other side," a telecom lobbyist told Axios.

The intrigue: Left-leaning public interest groups have grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of movement on Sohn's nomination.

  • One public interest advocate told Axios the White House urged Democrats to confirm FTC nominee Alvaro Bedoya, who was confirmed on a party-line vote in May, to give that agency the majority necessary to take action on inflation.
  • There hasn't been the same push for Sohn, the advocate said.
  • "The absence of effort from the White House to see this through by pushing a nominee through is frustrating beyond belief," the advocate told Axios.

The other side: A White House spokesperson said the administration has pushed just as strongly for Sohn as it has other key nominees, with senior officials engaging with members of Congress.

The big picture: The issue points to a greater pattern of dysfunction in the Biden administration's ability to get executive-level positions confirmed by a Senate with a raz0r-thin Democratic majority.

  • The White House pulled the nomination of gun control advocate David Chipman to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives last year amid Republican opposition.
  • It also yanked the nomination of embattled Office of Management and Budget contender Neera Tanden last fall.

Flashback: Biden's handling of appointments at the FCC feels especially slow compared to the swift action taken by the Trump administration.

  • Former President Trump promoted former FCC commissioner Ajit Pai to chairman less than a week after he was sworn in in January 2017.
  • He nominated Brendan Carr to fill the last remaining Republican seat at the FCC in July. Carr was confirmed alongside Rosenworcel that August and was reconfirmed in 2019.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify how Heitkamp opposed Sohn and to correct the reference to Heitkamp, who is not a registered lobbyist.

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