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Sen. Maria Cantwell

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) listens during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on November 3, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

Cantwell Delay of FCC Confirmation Called 'Gift to AT&T'

"With Sen. Cantwell caving to unreasonable demands from opponents to Sohn, we're going to see a hearing full of political posturing that serves no one except industry players eager to draw out the calendar and keep the FCC deadlocked," said one advocate.

Julia Conley

The Senate Commerce Committee's ongoing delay in confirming President Joe Biden's nominee to fill the empty seat on the deadlocked Federal Communications Commission is being criticized as a "gift" to powerful tech companies.

Gigi Sohn, co-founder of advocacy group Public Knowledge and longtime net neutrality defender already had a confirmation hearing in December, but Biden renominated her after the committee, chaired by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), failed to bring her nomination to the Senate floor for a vote.

Sohn is appearing for a second time before the Commerce Committee Wednesday.

The further delay "only hurts the American public and deadlocks the FCC—which is precisely the point," said Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel to Free Press, on Wednesday.

Republicans on the committee and telecom industry lobbyists "don't want the agency to function, and they'll drum up any excuse to delay, derail, or distract regulators from doing their jobs," Wood added. "Today's hearing is entirely unnecessary."

The committee had been scheduled to vote on advancing Sohn's nomination last week, but Cantwell announced a day before the planned vote that it would be further delayed, citing committee member Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s (D-N.M.) absence as a result of a stroke.

"There is no legitimate rationale for holding a second hearing about a recusal that both the Office of Government Ethics and the FCC's general counsel determined was not needed."

Without Luján present, Republicans would have been able to block Sohn's nomination by voting along party lines. Evan Greer, director of digital advocacy group Fight for the Future, expressed understanding of the delayed vote due to Luján's unforeseen health crisis, but said last week that the second hearing was "utterly unrelated."

"The timeline suggests Cantwell was considering this even before that," she tweeted after Wednesday's hearing was announced.

Greer wrote to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) last week, calling for Cantwell to be dismissed from her position as chair of the committee and saying she "has been actively and egregiously preventing Democrats from making good" on Biden's promise to ending the FCC's 2-2 deadlock so it can reinstate net neutrality rules repealed by the Trump administration and pass other regulations.

"She has repeatedly caved to disingenuous opposition from Republicans and industry lobbyists, leading to inexcusable delays" in Sohn's confirmation process, Greer wrote.

As advocacy group Free Press said last month, telecom giant Comcast's hiring of a new lobbyist appeared specifically aimed at challenging Sohn's nomination.

Republicans on the Commerce Committee have claimed Sohn's nomination to the FCC is unsuitable due to her past comments about right-wing news outlets like Fox News, which she accused of spreading "propaganda" in a tweet in 2020.

Sen. Roger Wicker (D-Miss.), the ranking member on the committee, has claimed Sohn's past as a board member at a discontinued nonprofit streaming service, Locast, disqualifies her. Locast was ordered by a federal court to shut down and settled with several broadcast networks whose content it streamed.

Sohn has pledged to recuse herself from some broadcast regulatory matters if confirmed to be an FCC commissioner—though her recusal is not required by government ethics officials—to ensure "the public has full confidence that policymakers will make decisions free of bias."

Holding a second hearing rather than simply proceeding with a vote once Luján is able to participate, said observers, will give Republicans an opportunity to raise their purported concerns again.

"We have to deal with Sen. Wicker's disingenuous and blatant obstructionism over this crucial nomination," said Wood last week. "And with Sen. Cantwell caving to unreasonable demands from opponents to Sohn, we're going to see a hearing full of political posturing that serves no one except industry players eager to draw out the calendar and keep the FCC deadlocked."

Wood laid blame with the White House's delay in naming FCC nominees last year as well as Wicker's "continued opportunistic nonsense," saying it isn't clear whether Cantwell "participating in that obstruction or just wildly ineffective at countering it."

The delay caused by Cantwell's decision to hold another hearing "is a gift to AT&T, Comcast, and the other companies that have worked for years to weaken the FCC's authority and who benefit from a deadlocked agency," said Joshua Stager, deputy director for broadband and competition policy at New America's Open Technology Institute, last week.

"There is no legitimate rationale for holding a second hearing about a recusal that both the Office of Government Ethics and the FCC's general counsel determined was not needed," he added.

Stager and Greer both noted that the second hearing "sets a dangerous precedent" for Biden's future nominees—a concern that was bolstered Tuesday as Communications Daily reported that Republicans on the committee are now seeking a second hearing for Alvaro Bedoya, Biden's nominee to serve on the Federal Trade Commission.

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