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All Eyes on Georgia

Rosenworcel Seen Leading Race for FCC Chair

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is considered the front-runner to be the next chair of the FCC, but others are also lining up support. Among other top candidates are Wiley’s Anna Gomez, Gigi Sohn of the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, and DLA Piper’s Smitty Smith, experts said. All potential contenders' fortunes remain in flux pending the outcome of Tuesday's runoff elections for both Georgia Senate seats, lobbyists told us.

President-elect Joe Biden, who has decades of Washington experience, could make an unanticipated choice, as when Barack Obama picked Julius Genachowski, a law school friend, as his first chairman. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris could also play a role in the decision, experts said.

It's imperative that Biden names a chair quickly because that person sets the tone, said Public Knowledge CEO Chris Lewis. “If folks truly see how critical connectivity to broadband is, especially over this last nine months of the COVID pandemic, then they need to demand action from the president-elect and the Senate to make this happen,” Lewis said. Naming a chair would also allow the FCC to resolve broadband authority issues as more people rely on secure and reliable services, he said.

All the candidates offer advantages for Biden. Gomez, former NTIA acting administrator, is close to his camp and would add another Hispanic in a key spot. She's working for the transition but overseeing NTIA. Sohn, a top aide to then-Chairman Tom Wheeler, is a strong advocate of net neutrality rules and would help Biden with the LGBT community, an important part of his coalition. A Smith nomination would address concerns that too few blacks have been appointed to leadership posts but wouldn’t give the FCC its first female chair. Smith is working on the FCC transition, which could make it more difficult for him to be picked.

Biden transition ethics rules could play a role in the choice, experts said. Rosenworcel and Sohn have the advantage of not working for law firms and wouldn’t be conflicted out from working on various issues.

Incumbent Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are in tight reelection fights in Georgia. If Democrats win both seats, the Senate will be split 50-50, with Harris breaking ties to give the party a razor-thin majority once she takes office. The Senate confirmed Republican FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington earlier this month, meaning the commission will be split 2-2 after Chairman Ajit Pai leaves Jan. 20 (see 2012080067).

The pool of viable candidates for the FCC gavel will be far larger if the Democrats control the Senate, while a continued GOP majority will narrow it significantly, lobbyists said. Senate Republican leaders are eyeing the possibility of seeking telecom policy concessions from Democratic nominees to secure their confirmation, with concerns they might use the process to indefinitely deadlock the commission (see 2012090063). With a Democratic Senate, Biden can nominate someone with clearer policy stances on net neutrality and other matters, lobbyists said.

Rosenworcel's prospects of leading the FCC on more than an acting basis may depend largely on Senate control, lobbyists said. The main hindrance to her as the front-runner is that the Biden administration will need to almost immediately renominate her to another term, putting her at the mercy of Republican leaders, lobbyists said. Rosenworcel’s term ended June 30, but she can remain through Jan. 3, 2022, unless the Senate confirms a replacement.

Another likely factor is the extent to which Wheeler can influence the Biden administration on the pick, lobbyists said. Most Biden transition FCC review team members have deep ties to Wheeler, including Smith, a former FCC and NTIA staffer (see 2011160048). Smith, who would be a leading contender if the "Wheeler camp" prevails, is likely interested in an eventual Democratic seat even if Biden doesn't select him as chair, lobbyists said.

"It's generally considered kind of uncouth to put yourself forward for a major" role at any federal agency if "you were on a transition review team," said Max Moran, research assistant at the Center for Economic Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project. But "it's not unheard of for agency review team members to end up" in such roles. "Every transition is different," and "personal relationships with each of these different members is always different," he said. Wheeler was an Obama transition leader, though not for the FCC, four years before being selected as chairman (see 0811170137).

Broadcast industry officials said they've heard a host of other names, including Cooley's Travis LeBlanc, a former Enforcement Bureau chief who previously worked with Harris, and current FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, but none of the speculative possible permanent chairs appears to be more likely than any other.

Public Backing

Rosenworcel has public backing from some Democratic lawmakers and outside groups (see 2012110056), including education, public safety and labor. Rosenworcel’s “long-standing work to close the Digital Divide and help connect students for education makes her the right choice to lead … right now,” said National Education Association President Becky Pringle: “She has championed providing all students internet access” and “drove the efforts to update and expand the E-Rate ... so that schools everywhere have the broadband service they need for digital age education.”

Rosenworcel “has gone out of her way to embrace public safety, to listen to our needs and concerns, to take actions that support and help public safety,” said Western Fire Chiefs Association CEO Jeff Johnson: “She has been very communicative and open. She’s very capable of telling us when we’ve got it wrong. … We legitimately feel like she cares about our issues.”

Jessica would be a terrific chair of the FCC because of her deep experience with the commission and her long history of standing up for workers and consumers when it comes to telecom policy,” a Communications Workers of America spokesperson said: “She’s the right person for the moment.”

Broadcasters don’t have a clear read on the possible next chair, but they’re preparing for Rosenworcel to take over in the interim, said Robert Folliard, Gray Television senior vice president-government relations and distribution. “We’re getting ready for the Rosenworcel administration,” he said.