The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a second hearing Feb. 9 on the nomination of Gigi Sohn to become an Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner, which produced little in the way of new information about her qualifications for the position, and not much insight into when or whether the Senate may take action to confirm the nomination.
The FCC is run by five commissioners nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, with the chair appointed by the President. Traditionally, three of the five commissioners are affiliated with the party in power at the White House, and two from the other major party.
Currently, the FCC has only four commissioners – two Republicans and two Democrats – and Sohn’s confirmation would give the Democrats a majority on the commission and more leeway to advance Democrats’ initiatives. She was nominated by President Biden in October 2021, and the White House refreshed the nomination last month because it had not been acted on by the Senate during the 2021 calendar year.
Second Time Around
The Feb. 9 Senate Commerce confirmation hearing marked the second such session for Sohn, with the first coming in December 2021.
As with the first hearing, questions regarding Sohn’s nomination fell along party lines, with Democrats strongly supporting her, and Republicans raising concerns over her work on various boards of directors, support of activist groups, and her comments on social media.
Sohn’s confirmation has been delayed due to two factors. The first has been the absence of committee member Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., who suffered a stroke last month, and is currently recovering and unable to join committee proceedings. The other is continued objections from Republicans on the committee.
In her opening statement at the Feb. 9 hearing, Sohn argued that Republican opposition to her nomination isn’t so much about her qualifications, but rather a desire to keep the FCC deadlocked politically and stymie its ability to accomplish the agenda of Democratic commissioners. In her favor, Sohn cited the roughly 250 organizations across the political spectrum that are supporting her nomination, as well as the hundreds of thousands of private citizens who have written in with their support.
“It’s about some wanting to stop the FCC from doing its important work ensuring that everyone in America has robust broadband regardless of who they are, what their income is or where they live, as mandated by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” she said. “It’s about stopping the FCC from ensuring that the media is diverse and serves the needs of local communities. It’s about stopping the FCC from ensuring that our networks are resilient when the next disaster hits so that the public stays connected and safe. And it’s about stopping the work Congress, including all of you and your predecessors, have charged this important agency with doing.”
Several Republican committee members – including Ranking Member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., took issue with Sohn’s involvement with the nonprofit Locust, which reached a legal settlement with major broadcasters over streaming rights. Specifically at issue was the settlement – which was smaller than would be typical – whether her nomination to the FCC played a role in the settlement, and her openness in discussing the terms of the settlement with the committee.
Sohn pushed back on Republican concerns, stressing that the settlement size was ordered by the judge, the parties involved were unaware if or when she would be nominated to the FCC, and that she was legally barred from discussing the terms of the settlement in writing.
As part of Locust settlement issue, Sohn previously agreed to voluntarily recuse herself from issues related to retransmission consent and broadcast copyright. This recusal was also a point of contention with Republican senators, namely whether Sohn should also recuse herself from other issues she spoke about when she headed for the nonprofit Public Knowledge. She was CEO of the think tank from 2001 to 2013.
Sohn defended agreement to recuse, saying it is tied to her work on the board of Locast, and is narrowly tailored over issues that likely won’t come before the FCC. She also argued that that to recuse herself from any issue she worked on at Public Knowledge would set a standard with “no limiting principle, and no one with any knowledge who has ever spoken about these issues would ever be qualified to be an FCC commissioner, and that is perverse.”
Other Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questioned critical comments Sohn had made about Fox News on Twitter, as well as her views on censorship. Sohn remarked that she regretted how sharp her tone was in her social media posts, but pointed out that as a cable company Fox News is not under the purview of the FCC. To the censorship concerns, Sohn pointed to the support her nomination has received from the leaders of conservative news outlets, including Newsmax and One America News Network.
When Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., brought up her tweets again, Sohn said, “Can we put this censorship thing to bed? It is a little bit ridiculous.”
Democrats on the committee largely spent their time praising Sohn’s career, asking her to commit to support various Democrat priorities for the FCC, and furthering the allegations that Republican opposition to her nomination stems from a desire to hamstring the FCC.
While every Republican senator present at the committee raised objections and were critical of Sohn during their questioning, none announced how they plan to vote on her nomination.
Despite no official announcements during the hearing, her path forward continues to look unclear. Given Sen. Lujan’s ongoing recovery, a vote is unlikely to take place until he returns to the committee. During the hearing, Sohn herself mentioned that that confirmation may drag on until April or May.