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Sohn blames ‘dark money’ for opposition to her joining FCC

Senate Republicans are digging in to prevent her confirmation, but Democrats may have the votes this time

Federal Communications Commission nominee Gigi Sohn told Senate Commerce members Tuesday that "dark money groups and surrogates" are trying to block her confirmation.
Federal Communications Commission nominee Gigi Sohn told Senate Commerce members Tuesday that "dark money groups and surrogates" are trying to block her confirmation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Gigi Sohn, President Joe Biden’s nominee to fill the vacant fifth seat on the Federal Communications Commission, appeared Tuesday before the Senate Commerce Committee for the third time as Republicans dug in for another effort to scuttle her confirmation.

The Democrats’ pickup of one Senate seat this year gives them a committee majority that could advance Sohn to the floor, a contrast to last year, but Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled his party’s determination to stop her, saying on the floor that she “is no more qualified to be installed on the FCC than she was back in 2021 or 2022.”

Sohn, a counselor at the FCC for three years, ending in 2016, was first nominated by Biden for an open FCC seat in 2021. She has faced stiff opposition from some industry groups and Republican lawmakers who accuse her of being a radical; being a leftist, because she labeled Fox News as a propaganda outlet; and engaging in unethical practices.

Sohn on Tuesday blamed the opposition on a broadband industry that fears competition.

“My industry opponents have hidden behind dark money groups and surrogates because they fear a pragmatic, pro-competition, pro-consumer policymaker who will support policies that will bring more, faster and lower-priced broadband and new voices to your constituents,” Sohn said in her opening statement. “Regulated entities should not choose their regulator.”

Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said that “personal attacks are a distraction from the fact that Ms. Sohn is immensely qualified for this position.” Cantwell also said that Sohn had advocated more competition in the broadband industry to lower internet prices for all Americans.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the top Republican on the committee, said Sohn “had shown herself to be a partisan who lacks the impartiality to serve in a leadership position at a powerful independent regulatory agency” that oversees a broad swath of telecommunications, wireless broadband, and radio and TV broadcasting companies.

Sohn — a progressive broadband policy advocate — would give Democrats a 3-2 majority on the FCC, likely enabling them to move forward with priorities like restoring net neutrality rules that were reversed by the Trump administration. Net neutrality requires internet service providers to treat all traffic equally, a position that its advocates say allows fledgling companies to compete with established corporations. 

But Cruz and other Republicans criticized Sohn for her tweets critical of policing in the U.S. as well as against Republican tactics in blocking voting access in parts of the country.

McConnell said on the floor that Sohn held “radical views” and raised “serious ethical questions.” 

The charge of ethical problems stems from her work on the board of a company that attempted to operate a nonprofit streaming service. After losing a copyright lawsuit filed by major television network stations, the service settled for $700,000, far less than the $32 million that the companies had sought. Sohn signed that settlement just as her previous nomination was announced.

The Senate Commerce Committee voted 14-14 on her confirmation in March 2022, failing to get it to the floor unless the Senate agreed on a discharge petition. The one-seat Democratic pickup since then changes the calculus, but Sohn couldn’t afford to lose more than one Democrat or independent if all the Republicans oppose her. 

The committee makeup has also changed. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has joined the panel in the current Congress, and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has left the Democrats to become an independent. Three newly elected Republicans are also on the panel this year. 

The fight over the nomination and the empty seat on the FCC comes as the Biden administration and the agency oversee a record $65 billion provided by Congress to expand high-speed broadband internet access in rural areas. The measure would give subsidies to small internet providers to build capacity in underserved areas of the country.

Industry association USTelecom and NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association were backers of her nomination in the last Congress.

Sen Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., chairman of Senate Commerce’s Communications, Broadband, and Media Subcommittee, said the FCC needed a full panel of commissioners to craft rules on broadband access. He said incumbent internet service providers are likely providing “false data to the FCC” in an effort to “block rival companies companies from getting a share” of the federal dollars set aside to expand broadband access.

As an advocate for increased broadband access, Sohn “is qualified and ready to be confirmed,” Luján said.

Cantwell noted that Sohn’s nomination had the backing of about 400 groups, including several conservative voices and people in the media industry such as Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax, a conservative media outlet.

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