The Federal Communications Commission will soon shift to Democratic control, and speculation has already begun about who will assume the chairmanship under the Biden administration.
Jessica Rosenworcel, the senior Democrat on the commission, is widely considered to be one of the leading candidates to succeed Ajit Pai in the powerful regulatory post. She has been vetted twice and would likely have a smooth path to confirmation, which would be a key consideration assuming the Senate remains in Republican hands.
“I think Jessica Rosenworcel probably has the best chance of becoming chair,” said John Orlando, former head of global government affairs at CBS. “The ease of her getting confirmed is far easier than anybody else.”
She also has the backing of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. He issued a statement to Variety praising Rosenworcel’s work on net neutrality and on expanding broadband access to low-income students since she joined the commission in 2012.
“Jessica Rosenworcel would make an excellent FCC Chair,” Blumenthal said. “She is a devoted public servant with a proven track record as a progressive voice on net neutrality, competition and consumer protections against robocalls. Jessica was looking for solutions to the ‘homework gap’ and expanding internet access to all students long before the COVID-19 pandemic brought these disparities into such stark relief. And if that all weren’t enough — she’s from Connecticut.”
Another possibility is Mignon Clyburn, who served on the commission from 2009-18. A former newspaper publisher, Clyburn is the daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, whose endorsement proved critical to Joe Biden’s win in the Democratic primary. Mignon Clyburn has been named to Biden’s transition team for the FCC.
Given her experience and her clout with the Biden team, Clyburn likely could have the FCC chairmanship if she wanted it. But observers say she might prefer something bigger. She recently took board seats at Lionsgate and RingCentral, which she would have to give up if named to the FCC, leading to some speculation that she does not want the job.
Thus far, Biden has staffed his administration with experienced Washington hands, rather than reaching for outside-the-box choices. That has led many to believe he would go with Rosenworcel or perhaps Geoffrey Starks, the other Democrat on the commission.
But relationships are also important, and Biden could select someone other than a current commissioner to chair the regulatory body. Edward “Smitty” Smith, a partner at DLA Piper in Washington, is one such possibility.
Smith is a D.C. native who served as an adviser to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. He was also a bundler for Biden’s presidential campaign, and hosted a fundraiser for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the fall of 2019. (Harris’ husband, entertainment attorney Douglas Emhoff, works in DLA Piper’s Los Angeles office.) Along with Mignon Clyburn, Smith was named to the Biden FCC transition team.
Another name that has been floated is Anna Gomez, a partner at Wiley Rein, a major D.C. law firm. She was an official at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration until 2013, and prior to that worked for a dozen years in various roles at the FCC. She has also been named to the Biden transition’s agency review team for the Department of Commerce.
With a 3-2 majority, the Democratic commissioners are widely expected to work to restore net neutrality. The commission voted on party lines in December 2017 to repeal the standard that barred internet providers from creating “fast lanes” for certain content companies or blocking or throttling content. Many observers believe that Congress must ultimately step in on the issue, to prevent the rules from toggling back and forth with each new administration.
Democrats are also expected to focus on the “digital divide,” seeking steps to expand access to broadband internet for poor and rural communities, and making sure that more children can attend school remotely during the pandemic.
The National Association of Broadcasters issued a statement pledging to work with the new administration.
“NAB looks forward to working with President-elect Joe Biden and the FCC on an agenda that helps local broadcasters serve their communities,” the trade group said. “There are so many critical issues facing Americans as we head into the new year, including providing accurate and up-to-date information on the distribution of coronavirus vaccines, discussing and addressing racial injustice, and combatting disinformation on the internet. As the most trusted local sources of news and information, broadcasters stand ready to work with the new Administration and Congress to address these and other issues head on.”
(Pictured: Jessica Rosenworcel)