No signs of Groundhog Day hearing for FCC nominee Gigi Sohn

It might feel like Groundhog Day for FCC nominee Gigi Sohn, but apparently she’s not going to get a third committee hearing on February 2 after all.

Sohn has waited more than a year to join the commission after being nominated and renominated by President Joe Biden. She was first nominated to the post in October 2021 but faced opposition from Republicans.

Gigi Sohn
Gigi Sohn  (screenshot from U.S. government hearing)

Sohn’s chances appeared better with the new Congress, and Democratic Senators scheduled a nominations committee hearing for Sohn on February 2, aka Groundhog Day. However, that apparently was moved due to “still shuffling Committee assignments,” according to New Street Research policy analyst Blair Levin. No new date was known at the time of Levin’s report, which conjured the theme of the “Groundhog Day” movie in which the same thing happens again and again.

The scheduling delay says nothing about her chances of ultimately getting on the commission, according to Levin. “It tells us that the committee Democrats have prioritized her nomination and intend to move quickly. But that provides no new information about her chances in the full Senate,” he said.

A lot of Sohn’s supporters are growing increasingly agitated as the calendar flips with no signs of her taking a seat at the commission, which has been operating at a 2:2 stalemate the past two years.  

Traditionally, the FCC majority reflects the party of the sitting president, but since President Biden took office, it’s been deadlocked with two Democrats – Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioner Geoffrey Starks – and two Republicans, Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington.

Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, on Friday urged Congress to advance the nomination of Sohn to the FCC.

“It is outrageous that the FCC has gone without a full slate of commissioners while the nomination of the supremely qualified and prepared nominee, Gigi Sohn, languishes amidst lies and homophobia. The work of the Commission—from net neutrality to closing the digital divide—is too important for this nomination to be delayed any further,” Markey said in a statement.

Rosenworcel defends work

Rosenworcel was asked about the stalled nomination process during a press conference after the FCC’s monthly open meeting on Thursday.  

“I believe this agency was designed to have five commissioners and functions best with five commissioners, so I hope that she is able to move through the process. Gigi Sohn is a nominee who knows this agency well and we wish her the best as she navigates this process on Capitol Hill,” Rosenworcel said.

While some complain the agency is unable to tackle controversial subjects given its 2:2 deadlock, Rosenworcel defended the agency. She said that during the last two years, “we have made enormous progress” when it comes to things like closing the digital divide, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and the homework gap.

The FCC held two spectrum auctions involving mid-band spectrum to support 5G and started a mapping initiative that is “light years ahead” of anything the agency did previously, she said. In addition, it’s done more on national security policy than any other FCC had done before.

“We’ve done a lot,” she said. “We’re going to continue to plow forward no matter who sits here and how many we have. But again, I know that we were built to operate with five and I hope that happens sooner rather than later.”

'Worst' smear campaign ever

One of those urging the Senate to get on with it is Preston Padden of Boulder Thinking and former spokesman for the C-Band Alliance. On Monday, he sent a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation describing opposition to Sohn’s nomination as “the worst and most cynical and baseless smear campaign ever waged against a nominee to serve on the FCC” and putting the blame on cable companies like Comcast that oppose Sohn's policy priorities. 

The letter referenced an online Daily Mail story from last week that juxtaposed a picture of Sohn next to a salacious photo with whom Sohn has “absolutely no connection,” he said. “This is ‘Tabloid Trash’ at its worst, all brought to you, I believe, by agents of some of the country’s biggest cable companies and ISPs.” The story referenced Sohn’s connection to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which works to protect free speech online.

Padden, a former Fox, ABC and Disney executive, said he has recently been in touch with Fox Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, who expressed misgivings about Sohn’s nomination. Padden said he replied that because Sohn fights for underdogs, which Fox was in its early days, she was “very helpful” in efforts to fend off lobbying attacks from the three established networks and to help Fox secure the waivers it Fox needed.

“Ms. Sohn’s politics are to the left of mine, but she is a superbly qualified and experienced nominee who should be confirmed as soon as possible,” Padden told the committee.