The US Senate returned to work for the new year on Monday with a long list of things to do, including debating the future of voting rights, attempting to pass President Biden's "Build Back Better" bill and commemorating a year since the US Capitol was stormed by a mob of Trump devotees. Adding to that list, Biden made a humble request this week for senators to please confirm his many lapsed federal and judicial and agency nominees from last year.
Included in those is Gigi Sohn, Biden's pick for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner. Sohn's confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee was held on December 1, but she had not been voted out of committee by year's end.
Another nominee stuck in the Senate is Alan Davidson, Biden's pick to head the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA). While Davidson was successfully voted out of committee last month, his nomination did not make it to the floor for a full vote by the time the Senate adjourned its 2021 legislative session. Politico reports that this was due in part to Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) imposing "a broad blockade of Commerce Department nominees over unrelated supply chain grievances."
Stuck in the Senate with you
If confirmed, Gigi Sohn (left) and Alan Davidson (right) will play key roles in implementing aspects of the $65 billion broadband bill, including state grant funding and a revamp of the Universal Service Fund.
(Image source: Sohn and Davidson Senate confirmation hearing, December 1, 2021, via C-SPAN.org)
While Davidson is expected to receive the votes needed for confirmation, the delay is not ideal for Biden's broadband agenda. The $65 billion broadband bill signed last year assigns most funding to the NTIA (through the Commerce Department) to dole out to each state through a $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program (BEAD).
According to Blair Levin, chief of staff to former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt under President Clinton and executive director of the National Broadband Plan under President Obama, not having a head of NTIA is a "significant problem" because it's holding up the ability to hire necessary staff. That's a concern he previously expressed in late 2021 when Biden had yet to name his nominees for federal leadership roles.
"There are people in Commerce who are working really hard and doing great work but until you have the leader and until he has his team in place, it's really hard to get certain things done," said Levin. "His getting there is really important for the country."
That sentiment was shared by a group of former NTIA administrators in a letter sent to Senate leaders Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in mid-December urging a swift vote on Davidson's confirmation.
"Acting on Mr. Davidson's nomination expeditiously is particularly important because Congress has recently given NTIA an urgent agenda and significant resources to bring the benefits of new technology to all parts of our country," said the letter, signed by eight former NTIA administrators, including Lawrence E. Strickling (2009-2017), Nancy Victory (2001-2003) and others. "NTIA must have strong leadership to guide the effort, be sure that the agency delivers on the promise of connecting all Americans, and be accountable to Congress for how the money is spent."
Meanwhile at the FCC, with Jessica Rosenworcel finally in place as permanent chairwoman and able to staff the agency, Levin said it's important to move on Gigi Sohn's nomination to give the commission a Democratic majority – but it's not immediately urgent for the purposes of the broadband bill.
That urgency will come a bit later when the FCC takes up policy issues, including restructuring the Universal Service Fund (USF). As per the broadband legislation, within 270 days of the bill's signing, the FCC must "submit to Congress a report on the options of the Commission for improving its effectiveness in achieving the universal service goals for broadband in light of this Act and the amendments made by this Act, and other legislation that addresses those goals."
Levin calls this "the single most important thing" this FCC will tackle. "If Gigi isn't there by April, that could be an issue," he said. "If I were Jessica, I would much prefer to have Gigi there to have the Democrats fundamentally united on their approach, and then try to negotiate."
Sohn's nomination has proven somewhat controversial. She has attracted a range of support from conservative and progressive groups alike. But she has been criticized for ties to the now-defunct streaming service Locast. During her confirmation hearing, she was also pressed by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) and others on past tweets she posted criticizing Fox News.
As of this writing, no votes had been scheduled for Sohn to clear committee or for Davidson's confirmation. Senate leaders did not respond to requests for comment.
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.