Biden’s internet pledges in limbo amid long battle with Gigi Sohn

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The country’s telecommunications regulator remained without a Democratic majority throughout President Biden’s 21-month tenure, crippling efforts to restore open internet protections and bridge the digital divide.

Breaking the deadlock at the Federal Communications Commission hinges on the confirmation of longtime public interest advocate and former FCC Democratic official Gigi Sohn, who was first nominated by the White House a while ago. almost a year. As the midterm elections approach and the ability of Democrats to maintain tight control over the Senate remains uncertain, Sohn’s supporters are warning Congress that time is running out to secure a majority at the agency.

On Friday, about 250 industry and public interest groups wrote a letter to top Senate leaders calling for a vote on Sohn’s nomination before Congress adjourns at the end of the year.

“The FCC needs a full commission as it begins to deliberate on critical upcoming decisions that will have profound impacts on the economy and the American people,” leaders of groups including the Consumer Technology Association wrote. , the Rural Wireless Association and Color Of Change in a letter. shared exclusively with The Washington Post.

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The push by Sohn’s supporters follows what his allies describe as an unprecedented effort by some telecommunications and media lobbyists to block his nomination. Biden’s failure to secure a majority or a full complement of FCC commissioners marks one of the longest delays in recent memory for a first-term president.

“It’s insane,” said Greg Guice, director of Public Knowledge’s government affairs team, who has worked in technology regulatory roles for more than 20 years. (Sohn previously worked at Public Knowledge, which is among the signatories of the Friday Letter). Lobbyists “know that being down a seat means they can control the agenda better,” he said.

The stakes for the industry are high: Under the Trump administration, the then Republican-led agency launched a wave of deregulation, reversing Obama-era net neutrality protections and eliminating decades-old rules that preserve media diversity in local markets. With a majority again, Democrats are expected to reverse those decisions.

Sohn’s appointment also comes as the federal government is expected to soon invest an unprecedented amount of funding in expanding Internet access, following infrastructure legislation passed by Congress last year. This legislation directed the agency to develop rules to address discrimination in Internet access based on income level or race. There are widespread inequities in the way broadband is delivered, and new rules under a Democratic FCC could create more costs for major internet service providers.

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Since the White House began vetting her for the job in the spring of 2021, Sohn has been largely sidelined from public commentary on telecoms policy. Over the past year, she has been frequently attacked as a partisan in publications such as Fox News, the New York Post and the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. The process had personal consequences, opening Sohn up to threatening phone calls and emails and name-calling. Sohn, who would be the first openly gay FCC commissioner, also faced attacks over her sexual orientation.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Gary Shapiro, CTA president and friend of Sohn. “We can’t even let people we don’t agree with take positions without attacking them personally.”

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Sohn’s nomination has met with fierce opposition from congressional Republicans, and some companies appear to be moving to target moderate Democrats who could decide his nomination.

Comcast this year paid former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) and his company $30,000 to lobby on the “status of FCC nominations,” among other issues, according to a July disclosure filing. Sohn is the only pending nomination for the commission.

In January, the company also tapped a former state lawmaker who served alongside Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), widely seen as a crucial vote on Sohn’s nomination, to lobby for nominations. at the FCC. The filing revealing the purpose of the lobbying was later resubmitted and amended to remove mention of the FCC nomination, as reported by media at the time. Comcast also tapped Larry Puccio, former senior aide to Sen. Joe Manchin III, another critical Democrat to lobby on telecom issues, though he didn’t mention the nominations.

Preston Padden, a former Fox and Disney executive, said he can’t recall any other occasion when companies have “micro-targeted” specific lawmakers to oppose an FCC nominee.

“What Comcast did to Gigi Sohn in my experience is absolutely unprecedented,” Padden said.

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The documents do not indicate how the groups lobbied for nominations or other issues. Comcast did not return a request for comment. The company previously declined to comment on lobbying filings.

“The Daschle Group has not lobbied for or against any nominations,” Daschle Vice President Veronica Pollock said. “We are constantly monitoring the status of nominations and sharing updates with clients when there is movement in Congress.”

Telecommunications companies are among the most formidable lobbying forces in Washington, but Sohn’s supporters say it’s impossible to calculate how much the industry spent to specifically oppose his nomination because those numbers aren’t disaggregated in federal lobbying disclosures. AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and T-Mobile have spent more than $23 million combined lobbying Washington so far this year, with Comcast leading the pack with $7.4 million, according to OpenSecrets data. , a non-profit organization that tracks campaign finance and lobbying spending.

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David Segal, founder of the left-leaning advocacy group Demand Progress, said the telecommunications lobby “still wields extraordinary political power” in Washington, which companies have used to thwart efforts to tackle what he called their “increasingly extractive business models”. And they should benefit from an FCC without Sohn, he said.

“The Biden administration has been strong on competition policy, and the FCC has significant jurisdiction there that cannot be fully deployed without a full commission,” he said.

The telecommunications giants declined to campaign publicly against Sohn’s nomination, and some said they remained neutral behind closed doors.

AT&T spokesman Alex Byers told The Post in a statement in May, “We have not taken a position on the nomination of Gigi Sohn, we have not asked any third-party organization to take a position, and we We did not fund any campaign against his nomination.”

Congressional Republicans have questioned Sohn’s commitment to bipartisanship, citing his former tweets criticizing conservative outlet Fox News. Sohn pushed back against the claims.

“In Mrs. Sohn, President Biden has appointed someone who cannot take on some of the responsibilities of FCC commissioner, and whose record strongly suggests that she cannot be relied upon to fulfill the one of his responsibilities in an impartial manner,” Sen. John Thune (RS.D.) said during a floor speech in March. All 14 Republicans on the key Senate Commerce Committee opposed advancing his nomination.

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Sohn’s confirmation was also hampered by procedural factors and complications in the 50-50 Senate. A committee vote on her nomination has been delayed in the absence of a key Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, and she faces additional hurdles as that vote is split evenly along party lines.

Revolving Door Project Director Jeff Hauser, whose watchdog group tracks federal nominations, said the scarcity of speaking time and “outdated” Senate protocols have hampered Democrats’ ability to quickly confirm nominees. The dynamic has forced Senate Democrats to make tough choices about who to appoint first, especially as they work to confirm a range of judicial nominees before potentially losing control of Congress.

“Obama-era Democrats didn’t prioritize judicial nomination, and it’s late progress that Biden and Schumer have done much better on that front. But court confirmations alone will not make the lame duck successful,” Hauser said, adding that “it is urgent that they fill the voids in independent agencies.”

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) declined to comment on the timing of a possible floor vote on Sohn.

The White House reaffirmed its commitment to Sohn’s nomination in a statement Wednesday.

“We worked tirelessly with Congress to get a confirmation vote,” White House spokeswoman Olivia Dalton said. “The majority of the FCC is on the line and we want Sohn’s talents, expertise and experience on the Commission.”

The FCC said in a statement that despite the standoff, the agency has made progress on broadband access, network security and other initiatives.

“As we look forward to the Commission once again having a full grandstand, we have done much with a 2-2 bench and will continue to do so on behalf of the American people,” the agency said in a statement.

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