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Pressure Builds to Name Permanent FCC Chair

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden faces pressure to end a 2-2 partisan deadlock on the FCC. (Image credit: Ken Cedeno/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden is under pressure from advocacy groups to name a permanent Federal Communications Commission chairman, and a third commissioner who will give that chair the Democratic majority needed to do big, regulatory-minded things.

The FCC is currently locked in a 2-2 political tie. Past chairs have pointed out that the vast majority of the agency’s decisions are unanimous, but that doesn't change the fact that many of the highest-profile rulings, like on media ownership deregulation, broadband subsidy programs and net neutrality regulations, are not.

The FCC has just been officially asked to restore the net neutrality rules, so that proceeding has already been teed up.

As acting chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel has the inside track for permanent chair. According to one lobbyist source, some political consultants are already making hires based on the assumption Rosenworcel will get the nod. But she is not a lock. 

Some folks, including the Congressional Black Caucus, supported commissioner Geoffrey Starks for the chairmanship (or acting chairmanship) between the election and Inauguration Day. But after Rosenworcel, the commission’s senior Democrat, got the acting nod, it would be unusual for Starks to now leapfrog her for the top spot, Washington lobbyists and former FCC officials said, speaking on background.

Starks declined comment on his chairmanship aspirations, but multiple people said he has clearly been seeking the post.

Rosenworcel has fans on Capitol Hill, where she was a top Senate staffer, and in Silicon Valley. So does Edward “Smitty” Smith, a partner at law firm DLA Piper who has experience with overseeing multibillion-dollar broadband subsidies at the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and at the FCC, as an adviser to the Broadcast Incentive Auction Task Force.

Smith also was on the four-person Biden FCC transition review team and raised money for the candidate. One D.C. vet said that if any profile fit a presidential FCC pick, it is Smith’s.

Whether the new chair is Rosenworcel (most likely, says one former top FCC official of the other party) or Smith (in the running, says another) or even Starks (unlikely, but with backers and good people skills), the key will be locking in the third Democratic vote.

Smith could be a candidate for that third seat on the FCC, along with Anna Gomez of D.C. powerhouse law firm Wiley, whose namesake is former FCC chairman Dick Wiley and whose alumni include numerous former FCC commissioners including another former chairman, Republican Kevin Martin.

Gomez is also a former top official at the NTIA, the White House’s chief communications policy advisory arm. 

Another name mentioned for the third seat is Travis LeBlanc, a partner at D.C. law firm Cooley LLP. He is former FCC Enforcement Bureau chief under the last Democratic chairman, Tom Wheeler. More germane to the current discussion, he is former senior adviser to then-California attorney general, and now-Vice President, Kamala Harris.