Dark Money Wins: Gigi Sohn Withdraws FCC Nomination

Dark Money Wins: Gigi Sohn Withdraws FCC Nomination

Gigi Sohn, Joe Biden’s pick to end a nearly two-year deadlock in the Federal Communications Commission, withdrew her nomination Tuesday. The exit, which Sohn blamed on stonewalling from dark money groups, means the FCC will remain without any one-party majority for the foreseeable future. That 2-2 commissioner gridlock will prevent Democrats from pushing even moderately progressive policy priorities forward because they would need Republican commissioners’ cooperation.

Sohn didn’t leave the running quietly. In a fiery exit statement, she said the nomination was stymied by “legions of cable and media industry lobbyists” who tried to discredit her professional record with lies and smears. In the end, Sohn said the “unrelenting, dishonest and cruel attacks” on her character were simply too much to bear. That’s bad news for Sohn, but even worse news for anyone optimistic about the FCC holding telecoms accountable.

“It is a sad day for our country and our democracy when dominant industries, with assistance from unlimited dark money, get to choose their regulators,” Sohn said. “And with the help of their friends in the Senate, the powerful cable and media companies have done just that.”

What happened to Gigi Sohn?

Gigi Sohn is a veteran telecom lawyer who co-founded the non-profit Public Knowledge, whose mission says it “promotes freedom of expression, an open internet, and access to affordable communications tools and creative works.” Sohn previously served in the FCC as an adviser to Obama-era commissioner Tom Wheeler and was nominated by Biden to fill the commission’s now vacant fifth seat in 2021. What may have once seemed like a relatively straightforward party-line nomination vote, however, instead spiraled into a 16-month political slugfest reportedly fuelled by an unprecedented flow of lobbyist cash.

Last year, the top telecom companies combined reportedly spent a colossal $US117,540,160 ($163,169,250) on political lobbying, with Comcast spending the most, according to Open Secrets. Comcast, according to The Washington Post, alone reportedly paid former Democratic Senate Majority Leader turned dark money lobbyist Tom Daschle $US30,000 ($41,646) to lobby on the “Status of FCC nominations.”

Though it’s difficult to say for sure how much of the total telecom lobbying spend went towards blocking Sohn’s vote, it was enough to block her nomination, not once, but twice. Biden, understandably eager to have a functioning FCC, renominated Sohn for a third time earlier this year. During that time, she faced an unrelenting wave of attacks, not just from telecom groups that could stand to lose out on her nomination, but also the op-ed pages of publications like the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Fox News, who accused her of holding “radical views.” Those supposed radical views included tweets critical of Fox News.

“It’s a tragedy,” Consumer Technology Association CEO Gary Shapiro previously told The Washington Post. “We can’t even let people we disagree with get into positions anymore without attacking them personally.”

In the end, the lobbying efforts and failure of Senate Democrats to band together were simply too much for Sohn to continue. The lawyer removed her name from the running realising it was unlikely her nomination would ever be confirmed, even if she was nominated for a tenth time.

“Unfortunately, the American people are the real losers here,” Sohn wrote. “The FCC deadlock, now over two years long, will remain so for a long time. As someone who has advocated for my entire career for affordable, accessible broadband for every American, it is ironic that the 2-2 FCC will remain sidelined at the most consequential opportunity for broadband in our lifetimes”

Update 3/7/203 4:30 P.M. EST: Added more details about Sohn’s nomination.

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