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Biden’s internet pledges in limbo amid long battle over FCC nominee

The country’s telecommunications regulator has not had a Democratic majority for President Biden’s entire 21-month term, hampering efforts to restore open internet protections and close the digital divide.

Breaking the deadlock at the Federal Communications Commission depends on the confirmation of Gigi Sohn, a long-time public interest advocate and former FCC Democratic official who was first nominated by the White House nearly a year ago. With midterm elections approaching and Democrats’ ability to maintain their limited control of the Senate remains uncertain, Sohn’s supporters are warning Congress that the clock is ticking to get a majority within the agency.

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

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

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

“It’s insane,” said Greg Guice, the director of Public Knowledge’s government affairs team, who has worked in technical regulatory roles for more than 20 years. (Sohn previously worked at Public Knowledge, one of the signatories to the Friday letter). Lobbyists “know that if they sit one seat lower, they can better control the agenda,” he said.

Much is at stake for the industry: During the Trump administration, the Republican-led agency sparked a wave of deregulation, stripping away Obama-era net neutrality protections and eliminating decades-old regulations that disrupt media diversity. maintained in local markets. With another majority, Democrats are expected to reverse those steps.

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

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Since the White House began investigating her for the position in the spring of 2021, Sohn has been largely sidelined from commenting publicly on telecommunications policy. In the past year, she has often been attacked as partisan in publications including Fox News, the New York Post and Wall Street Journal op-ed pages. The process has taken a personal toll, leaving Sohn open to threatening phone calls and emails and name-calling. Sohn, who would be the first openly gay FCC commissioner, has also faced attacks on her sexual orientation.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Gary Shapiro, the chairman of CTA and a friend of Sohn’s. “We can’t even let people we disagree with get into positions without personally attacking them.”

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Sohn’s nomination has been met with fierce opposition from Republicans in Congress, and some companies appear to be taking steps to target moderate Democrats who could rule on her nomination.

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

The company also tapped a former state legislator in January who served alongside Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), widely seen as a pivotal swing vote on the Sohn nomination, to lobby for FCC nominations. The filing revealing the lobbying focus was later resubmitted and amended to remove the mention of the FCC nomination, as news outlets reported at the time. Comcast also retained Larry Puccio, the former top aide to Senator Joe Manchin III, another critical Democrat, to lobby on telecommunications issues, though it did not name nominations.

Preston Padden, a former chief executive at Fox and Disney, said he could not recall another occasion when companies “microtargeted” specific lawmakers to oppose an FCC candidate.

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

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

“The Daschle Group has not lobbied for or against nominations,” said Daschle’s vice president, Veronica Pollock. “We consistently monitor the status of nominations and share 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 has spent to specifically oppose her nomination because such numbers aren’t mentioned in federal lobbying disclosures. AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and T-Mobile have collectively spent more than $23 million on lobbying in Washington this year, with Comcast leading the way with $7.4 million, according to data from OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that spends for campaign finance and lobbying.

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David Segal, founder of left-wing advocacy group Demand Progress, said the telecom lobby “continues to wield extraordinary political power” in Washington, which companies have used to thwart attempts to tackle what he called their “increasingly extractive business models.” And they will benefit from a Sohn-less FCC, 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 telecom giants have refused to campaign publicly against Sohn’s appointment, with some saying they have remained neutral behind closed doors.

AT&T spokesman Alex Byers told The Post in a statement in May: “We have not taken a stance on Gigi Sohn’s nomination, have not asked a third party to take a position, and have not funded campaigns against her nomination.”

Congressional Republicans have questioned Sohn’s commitment to bipartisanship, citing her old tweets criticizing conservative Fox News. Sohn has reversed the claims.

“In Ms. Sohn, President Biden nominated someone who is unable to fulfill some of the FCC Commissioner’s responsibilities, and whose track record strongly suggests that she cannot be relied upon to carry out any of her responsibilities impartially. fulfill,” Senator John Thune (RS.D.) said during a floor speech in March. All 14 Republicans on the Senate’s main commerce committee opposed promoting her nomination.

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

Revolving Door Project director Jeff Hauser, whose watchdog group tracks federal nominations, said a lack of floor time and “outdated” Senate protocols have hampered Democrats’ ability to quickly confirm nominees. The dynamic has forced Senate Democrats to make tough choices about which appointees should be prioritized, especially as they push for confirmation of a string of judicial nominees before potentially losing control of Congress.

“Obama-era Democrats didn’t prioritize judicial appointments, and it’s backlog progress that Biden and Schumer have done much better in that area. But court confirmations alone won’t make the crippled duck remotely successful,” Hauser said, adding that “there is an urgent need for them to fill the vacuums at independent agencies.”

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

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

“We’ve worked relentlessly with Congress to get a confirmation vote,” said White House spokesman Olivia Dalton. “The majority of the FCC is at stake and we want Sohn’s talents, expertise and experience at the Commission.”

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

“While we look forward to seeing the Commission once again having a full podium, we have done a lot 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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