Senate Republicans have again dug in their heels against President Biden's nominee to fill the vacant fifth seat on the Federal Communications Commission, reflecting what some Democrats call a smear campaign directed at a lesbian woman with progressive politics. During a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, FCC nominee Gigi Sohn faced a third round of Republican-led criticism — but embraced the moment to denounce the role of dark money groups in the ongoing smear campaign against her.
Sohn, a board member at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a left-leaning internet advocacy group, would unfreeze the FCC's current 2-2 partisan deadlock and secure Democrats a 3-2 majority.
Tuesday's hearing was Sohn's third before the committee after being nominated in October 2021, and the first since Biden renominated her last month. Her stalled confirmation has so far scuttled Democratic promises to restore the landmark net neutrality rules ended under Donald Trump.
In a prepared statement, Sohn said Tuesday that her appointment has faced significant delays at the hands of telecom and internet service provider lobbying groups.
"It is critical for at least one member of the FCC to be a consumer advocate who has spent a career not beholden to any interest but that of the public," Sohn said.
"Regulated entities should not choose their regulator. Unfortunately, that is the exact intent of the past 15 months of false and misleading attacks on my record and my character. My industry opponents have hidden behind dark money groups and surrogates because they fear a pragmatic, pro-competition, pro-consumer policymaker."
"There's a little homophobia going on here. It's whispered around in the Senate. I like to think as a country we're past that, but apparently we're not."
Telecom lobbying money surged during the 2022 cycle, with more than $117 million spent on candidates — a sum that excludes what may be much larger sums of donor money funneled through dark-money PACs. Comcast, one of the telecom lobby's biggest spenders, led industry campaign donors with $14.29 million during the 2022 election cycle. From 2019 to 2022, Comcast gave eight of the committee's 13 Republicans $65,000 in individual campaign donations.
Comcast, a leading voice against net neutrality, has also reportedly fought Sohn's nomination by way of the One Country Project lobbying group, led by moderate Democrats.
During the Tuesday hearing, Republican committee members cited Sohn's previous criticism of Fox News (over which the FCC has no jurisdiction), her prior work at a now-shuttered streaming service and a handful of her sharper tweets.
"You would be a very partisan influence on a commission that in my view, deals with issues where you need to try and find some consensus," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Tuesday. Thune received $10,000 in campaign donations from Comcast during the 2022 election cycle.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Ark., said Sohn's criticism of Fox News "certainly shows a lack of judgment and a bias on conservative views." Sullivan accepted $10,000 from Comcast during the 2020 election cycle.
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But Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., noted the amount of conservative support behind Sohn's nomination, including previous administration officials appointed by Trump.
"This is a proxy fight for net neutrality," Cantwell said. "Somehow if affordable broadband gets deployed anywhere, then somehow more affordable broadband might get deployed everywhere. I think there's probably billions of dollars at stake here, and that is why the vitriol is coming at you."
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., also sits on the committee. The former Democrat, who was the only senator from that party not to co-sponsor legislation to restore net neutrality, has been linked to Comcast-directed dark money groups, as reported in 2019. Sinema took in nearly $450,000 in campaign donations from broadband-related industry players from 2017 through 2022.
The campaign against Sohn — who would become the FCC's first openly gay commissioner if confirmed — has been characterized by what at least 21 pro-LGBTQ organizations have described as odious homophobia. Those groups have called on Democrats to stand up for Sohn, and even some notable conservatives have publicly defended her.
Indeed, some telecom industry figures whom Sohn has clashed with in the past have even spoken up on her behalf. Lobbyist Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association, an industry group, called the tactics an "injustice."
"There's a little homophobia going on here. It's whispered around in the Senate.… And that's a shame. It's no secret that Gigi would be the first openly gay FCC commissioner. I like to think as a country we're past that, but apparently we're not," Shapiro told NBC News earlier this month. "This smear campaign, it's been two years already.… I think a major injustice is being done here to a super high-quality person."
FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has expressed support for Sohn's nomination, as reported by Inside Towers. Asked in late January about Sohn's confirmation, Rosenworcel said it could take at least a month to seat Sohn, even with full Democratic support.
"I believe this agency was designed to have five commissioners, so I hope that she is able to move through the process," Rosenworcel said. "She is a nominee who knows this agency well and we wish her the best as she navigates this process on Capitol Hill."
There are now expectations that Sohn's nomination will move forward quickly, signaled by the committee's early-session hearings and Biden's continued emphasis on digital-divide initiatives.
Cantwell told reporters after the hearing that she hadn't decided when to hold a vote on Sohn's nomination, but said she's only giving committee members until Friday to submit any further material on the matter.