Capitol building

The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing today (Nov. 17) on President Biden’s nomination of Jessica Rosenworcel as Chair of the Federal Communications Commission. The Senate has not yet said when it will hold a similar hearing for Gigi Sohn, the President’s pick to fill a vacant Democrat seat at the FCC. But a coalition of 80 civil rights and public advocacy groups is urging lawmakers not to delay, and confirm both Rosenworcel and Sohn as soon as possible.

“These exceptional nominees’ appointments so late in the year means there can be no delay in confirming them and getting started in earnest on all of that urgent work,” the coalition wrote in a letter to Senate leaders.

The groups include Free Press, the Communications Workers of America, and Public Knowledge, among others. They are most interested in having a five-person FCC in order to allow the Commission to reinstate net neutrality rules adopted during the Obama administration but rolled back under the Trump FCC. Without all five commissioners, even if Rosenworcel is seated, a 2-2 deadlock would likely mean no action on the controversial issue would be attempted. The public interest groups say that President Biden’s signing of a landmark $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill on Monday, which includes $65 billion for broadband deployment and affordability, amplifies the need to adopt rules preventing internet providers from slowing down service to some users.

Senate staffers have said the Commerce Committee expects to hold a hearing on Sohn’s nomination by year-end. But no date has been set so far. Keeping Rosenworcel in place where she has served as Acting FCC Chair since January is seen a more urgent priority. 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.

Sohn is a veteran of Washington telecommunications policy and worked as a senior advisor to former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. She earlier cofounded the public interest group Public Knowledge. Sohn had been a top pick among progressives for the chairmanship. But her past statements, including those about conservative media outlets, have led some Republicans to oppose her nomination.

“I will do everything in my power to convince colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reject this extreme nominee,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) wrote in a series of posts on Twitter this month. The key to Sohn’s vote may hinge on which way Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) go, and neither has commented publicly so far.

Rosenworcel – a former congressional staffer – is seen much more as a centrist and her previous policy splits with Sohn may be working in her favor on Capitol Hill. Rosenworcel was previously approved on a bipartisan basis in 2017, and was unanimously approved by the Senate.