Eight months into his term, President Biden has yet to name his pick for the head of the Federal Communications Commission. No other President in U.S. history has taken longer to fill the position. But a group of 25 Senate Democrats think the answer is right under his nose: Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel.
“The decision to nominate Acting Chair Rosenworcel to a full term as Commissioner and designate her as the permanent Chair of the FCC can no longer be delayed,” the group writes in a letter to the White House. “We urge your administration to appoint her to this role as quickly as possible.” The group warns further delay “puts at risk” some of the administration’s telecommunications policy agenda.
The White House is said to have been considering other candidates, including Gigi Sohn, a veteran of Washington telecommunications policies and a former senior advisor to former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. But Sohn, who earlier led the public interest group Public Knowledge, apparently faced opposition in the Senate.
Other names that have surfaced include telecom attorney Edward "Smitty" Smith, who previously served as a legal adviser to Wheeler, and telecom attorney Anna Gomez, who previously spent 12 years in various positions at the FCC.
But the group of 25 lawmakers, including many Democrats who sit on the Senate Commerce Committee that would need to review any FCC nominee, says a Rosenworcel selection would not only put another woman at the top of the Biden administration, but her record justifies the promotion. “She has already shown an ability to steer the FCC through these extraordinary and difficult times,” they said.
The Senators also acknowledge Rosenworcel’s best asset may be her ability to quickly get through the confirmation process. She was has previously approved on a bipartisan basis in 2017, and was unanimously approved by the Senate in 2012.
“We believe that Acting Chair Rosenworcel will face few obstacles to her confirmation,” the Senators predict. “It will take months for a different nominee to move through the process, hire staff and begin implementing an agenda, leading to indecision and gridlock at the very time decisiveness is most critical. This will not be necessary if Acting Chair Rosenworcel is appointed chair,” they tell the administration.
New Street Research analyst Blair Levin, a former FCC staffer, has questioned whether Rosenworcel may instead face hurdles inside the White House. “While interim Chair Rosenworcel continues to have significant Senate support, her inability to obtain the nomination after more than six months suggests to us that there is some internal White House opposition,” he wrote in a report to clients in July. “But there is no clear front-runner for replacing her,” he added.
With another Democrat seat open on the Commission, a compromise that has been floated is for Biden to select Rosenworcel as chair and pick someone with stronger progressive ties to fill the other vacancy.
A GOP Majority Possible
The administration’s lackadaisical attitude toward filling the FCC post has raised eyebrows for much of the summer. But now Senate Democrats are becoming increasingly anxious with the possibility that not filling the opening could put Republicans in the majority. Because Rosenworcel’s term expired in June 2020, under federal law she is allowed to remain on the job only until year-end. After that, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks would become the lone Democrat at the FCC. While he would hold the gavel, Republican Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington would have the voting power.
Congress has several large pieces of legislation coming up for a vote in the coming weeks and that means there may not be a lot of attention on FCC personnel. But there are still three months left in 2021 for the Senate to confirm a new commissioner or Chair. That is the same amount of time that Senate Republicans had in 2020 when they raced through the confirmation of Trump nominee Nathan Simington to create a 2-2 deadlock.
Rosenworcel has declined to say whether she would like the post on a permanent basis. But she told Inside Radio earlier this year she had some ideas of what the FCC could accomplish. “I have a slate of things that we may be doing with respect to broadcasting,” said Rosenworcel. “As far as big-ticket items, we are down a commissioner, so that does have some impact on our work.”
If the National Association of Broadcasters has a preference for who it would like to see lead the FCC, it is not saying. The group earlier this year issued a “we’ll work with anyone” blanket statement.