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Nominee Cites 'Dark Money'

Democrats Seek Civility at 3rd Sohn Hearing; Cruz Promises 'Comprehensive' GOP Review

FCC nominee Gigi Sohn shouldn’t expect a Valentine’s Day change of tone in the questions she gets during her Tuesday confirmation hearing from Senate Commerce Committee Republicans, who have been steadfastly critical of her since President Joe Biden first nominated her in October 2021 (see 2110260076), lobbyists and observers said. Commerce Democratic leaders are hoping to keep their panel members united in support of Sohn during the hearing, with an eye to using their new outright 14-13 majority on the panel to quickly advance her to the full chamber. The committee tied 14-14 in March on advancing Sohn (see Ref:2203030070]), stalling her confirmation process through the rest of the year. The hearing, Sohn’s third appearance before Commerce as an FCC nominee, will begin at 10 a.m. in 253 Russell.

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Senate Commerce Democrats hope to prevent a recent wave of conservative media commentary on Sohn, which tried to link the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s actions and stances on sex worker policies to the nominee via her role as a member of the group’s board, from gaining traction on Capitol Hill as an argument against her confirmation. Sohn’s supporters argue the recent reports are veiled homophobic personal attacks, mainly citing the focus on the group’s 2020 award to OnlyFans-affiliated sex worker Danielle Blunt, known professionally as Mistress Blunt (see 2301310062). Sohn would be the FCC’s first openly LGBTQ commissioner if the Senate confirms her. Panel Republicans won’t say whether the nominee's EFF connection will be a major topic during the Tuesday hearing, but some aides insist party members don’t intend to use it as a slur on Sohn’s sexual orientation.

Sohn’s advance testimony doesn’t specifically address any of the recent reports but says “the past 15 months of false and misleading attacks on my record and my character” have come from “regulated entities” attempting to “choose their regulator.” Communications industry “opponents have hidden behind dark money groups and surrogates because they fear a pragmatic, pro-competition, pro-consumer policymaker who will support policies that will bring more, faster, and lower-priced broadband and new voices to your constituents,” Sohn says in her written testimony, which we obtained Monday before Senate Commerce publicly released it.

I am extremely well qualified,” Sohn says. “Even those who oppose my confirmation agree that I have deep knowledge of the issues before the FCC and thanks to my time working at the agency, I know how it operates.” She knows “everybody and they know me. They also know, regardless of whether we agree on policy, that I’m a straight shooter who will listen, try to find common ground, and take their equities into account.” The FCC “has been without a majority for the entirety of the Biden Administration … at a time when closing the digital divide is front and center,” Sohn says: “There are too many important issues in front of the Commission to lack a full complement of members.”

Dems Resist 'Circus'

I don’t think” the Tuesday hearing will focus on many new issues about Sohn’s record, but because “it’s a new Congress” this year, the Republicans were entitled to seek a rerun of the “whole process,” albeit on a shorter time frame than they sought (see 2301260068), said Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in an interview: “She’s a great nominee.” Cantwell expects Republicans to keep their questions to Sohn civil, because “that’s what we want for everybody” who comes up for panel consideration. Cantwell is privately indicating to chamber Democrats she wants to ensure Republicans don’t turn the Sohn hearing into a “circus” given the recent negative attention from conservative outlets, said a telecom lobbyist who monitors Democratic deliberations. She believes it would be “sad” if the hearing turns on those issues, the lobbyist said.

I would expect a comprehensive examination of” Sohn’s “record, although I don’t make it a practice to share the questions I’m going to ask” before the hearing, said ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “There are concerns on both sides of the aisle” about Sohn, he said. “I don’t believe she’s going to be confirmed. I don’t think the math works. I don’t think she can get to” the minimum number of yes votes to achieve her confirmation. The 51-49 Democratic Senate would need to at least reach a tie on Sohn to confirm her, assuming Vice President Kamala Harris broke the deadlock in her favor. “I’m not sure why the Biden White House is wasting their time” continuing to pursue her as a nominee given that state of play, Cruz told us.

Republicans “have already had not one opportunity but two” to delve into their concerns with Sohn, “so I hope that this is a hearing is quick” and Senate Commerce can move quickly to advance her out of committee after it happens, said Communications Subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M. “I certainly hope” homophobia and personal attacks don’t feature in the hearing because “there should be a conversation about the work that she has done and the work that she will do going forward.” Senators should “vote her up or down based on her qualifications,” he said: “This should not be controversial” and “should have been done two years ago.”

I want to see and evaluate” the tenor of the reports Sohn’s supporters regard as homophobic before passing judgment on them, said Senate Commerce member Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who was the first openly LGBTQ person elected to the chamber when she won in 2012. Sohn has “had two hearings already,” and Cruz is entitled to seek a third panel due to the shift to a new Congress, but “I hope we can promptly give her the vote that she’s due” once senators ask their questions, Baldwin told us.

'Substantive' GOP Concerns

There are numerous substantive concerns with her record” that will provide sufficient grist for GOP questioning, including “a willingness to use government power to silence those with whom she disagrees,” Cruz said. He and other Republicans focused during Sohn’s 2021 hearing on her past social media posts, some of which criticized Fox News and other conservative media outlets (see 2112010043). Cruz also cited interest in talking about what he considers “serious ethical lapses” by Sohn “that I think make her unsuitable” to be an FCC commissioner. Sohn’s 2022 hearing focused on her role as a board member for Locast operator Sports Fans Coalition and her commitment to temporarily recuse herself from some FCC proceedings involving retransmission consent and broadcast copyright (see 2202090070).

A lot of time has passed since the last confirmation hearing and there’s always the possibility of new information” coming out Tuesday, said Senate Communications ranking member John Thune, R-S.D. “I suspect you’ll hear some of” the same concerns he and others voiced previously, “but this is a new window of opportunity not only to talk about some of the things we already know, but hopefully some of the things we don’t” yet.

One potential topic Republicans may probe is the FCC Office of Inspector General’s 2016 determination that Sohn, then a senior counselor to then-commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, was responsible for leaking some of the information media outlets published about commissioners’ private Lifeline compromise with Wheeler’s authorization (see 1610060067), lobbyists told us. Thune raised concerns when he sought the probe that the leaker may have violated statutory rules barring disclosure of “nonpublic information … to any person outside” the FCC before a commission vote. The OIG said Sohn’s leak didn’t violate the law because Wheeler authorized its disclosure. The OIG’s September 2016 memo on its investigation was recirculating among telecom lobbyists last week and came to Commerce GOP aides’ attention as part of their re-vetting of Sohn. It’s unclear whether it would have much potency since the leak occurred nearly seven years ago, lobbyists said.

Observers are watching for signs of how Senate Commerce’s three new Republicans and one new Democrat side on Sohn. One of the three Republican freshmen, Eric Schmitt of Missouri, told reporters he’s already “opposed” to the nominee and believes “there’s a lot of questions that she needs to answer to the rest of the committee.” Sohn “certainly doesn’t deserve to move forward” past Senate Commerce for “many” reasons “that I look forward to talking about” at the hearing, he said. The three others -- Sens. Ted Budd, R-N.C.; J.D. Vance, R-Ohio; and Peter Welch, D-Vt. -- declined to state their positions on Sohn. Lobbyists expect all three will fall in line with their parties on the nominee.

'Culture War' Matters

I’m fully confident” Sohn “is going to perform” well at the hearing and “she will ultimately be confirmed” by the Senate despite the recent media attention, Incompas CEO Chip Pickering, a strong Sohn backer, told us. Some communications sector officials said they will closely monitor the tone of the Tuesday hearing and may publicly criticize panel Republicans if they veer too far into engaging in what they consider personal attacks on Sohn. Some observers believe Republicans aren’t likely to directly engage the nominee on the conservative media reports because of the potential for that line of questioning to backfire. “That’s not something they’re going to want to bring to the dais,” one lobbyist said.

I suspect” Republicans “will not try to address those issues” directly “because they know it won’t do them any favors” with the public to bring up what appear to be “culture war” matters in a confirmation hearing, said Public Knowledge Government Affairs Director Greg Guice. “I’m sure they will deflect,” while some Commerce Democrats who have spoken out against the personal attacks “may raise it with them directly.”

Concerns about Sohn’s relationship with EFF are “absolutely legitimate” and should be fair game for Senate Commerce Republicans to reference during the hearing, said Charles Moran, president of LGBT conservative group Log Cabin Republicans, in an interview. Moran criticized the Human Rights Campaign and 21 other groups last week for calling the reports about Sohn’s EFF connection a homophobic attack (see 2302060065). “People are not attacking her because she is a lesbian,” Moran told us. “They’re criticizing her because of her public policy positions.” There “are a lot of nuanced issues” involving sex trafficking, he said: Attempting to spin criticism of EFF’s position on sex worker policy “is just too far of a stretch.”

I certainly hope” Senate Commerce Republicans prod Sohn on her EFF role, among other “incredibly problematic” aspects of her record, said American Accountability Foundation President Tom Jones. AAF, one of the groups most vocally opposed to Sohn, urged four Democratic senators last week to recuse themselves from voting on her confirmation because the nominee donated to their campaigns (see 2302080043). “There are a lot of new issues” with Sohn “coming to light” that Republicans need to mention, especially since a handful of Senate Democrats remain publicly undecided on the nominee, Jones told us. “If the Democratic conference was completely comfortable with” Sohn, “they could have pushed her through during the last Congress” given the Senate was under Democratic control despite being in a 50-50 tie.