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The New FCC?

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel
Current FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (above) and former member Mignon Clyburn (below) are candidates to head up a Biden FCC. (Image credit: JohnStaleyPhoto.com)

A Biden Federal Communications Commission could well be led by current commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. As the senior Democrat, she would almost certainly be named acting chair in the early days of a Biden administration, as was her former boss, Michael Copps, when Barack Obama won in 2008.

If so, it will have been the most peripatetic route to the post. She was commissioner, had to leave when her renomination was held up in an unrelated political fight, then returned when the smoke cleared — the first commissioner to exit and re-enter the panel.

Rosenworcel voted against deregulating internet providers and has called for the return of rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization, as had fellow Democratic commissioner Geoffrey Starks. She and Starks also voted against eliminating broadcast regulations.

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It is unclear whether the Republicans would stick with Trump’s pick of Nathan Simington of NTIA to replace Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly. According to former top FCC officials, a more likely scenario would be that the Nov. 10 confirmation hearing for Simington proceeds, but the pick is not scheduled for a vote. Instead the seat would go to Crystal Tully, deputy staff director at the Senate Commerce Committee, who is said to be the choice of Commerce chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Ohio).

Simington was the president’s choice to replace O’Rielly after Trump pulled the latter’s nomination, reportedly stung by O’Rielly’s criticism of the president’s effort to regulate social media. Simington was not the choice of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate majority leader, who by all accounts preferred O’Rielly. 

Since the days of President Bill Clinton, who set the precedent, FCC picks generally are done in consultation with Congressional leadership, which is why they are often former Hill staffers — O’Rielly and Rosenworcel among them.

Mignon Clyburn

Mignon Clyburn

Former commissioner Mignon Clyburn is also a front-runner for the big chair, given her experience and the fact that the endorsement of Biden by her father, House Minority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), during the primaries essentially saved his campaign when it was on life support. 

If so, she would be the one setting precedent as the first Black woman to hold that post, as well as a commissioner who left only to return as chair. She has already occupied the post, serving as acting chair following Julius Genachowski’s exit in 2013.

“The seat is hers for the asking, assuming she  wants it,” said Adonis Hoffman, a communications lawyer and former staffer at the FCC and in Congress. Clyburn has been vetted, confirmed twice and, by virtue of her legacy and loyalty, would be a solid and steady hand at the commission. She has no baggage and plenty of friends on the Hill, in the administration and in the advocacy community. Plus, while socially progressive, she has a good track record with industry.

But Hoffman also likes Rosenworcel’s chances, saying she has the support of Senate Democrats, with whom she earned a reputation as a reliable defender of the public interest.  

Andrew Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, called Rosenworcel a logical front-runner. “Her strongest asset may be years of work as a Senate staffer, during which time she almost certainly had personal contact with then-Senator Biden and absolutely certainly became well-known to Biden staffers who remain close to him and will be involved in the transition and selection process,” he said. Plus, she has the added advantage of not needing Senate confirmation.

Schwartzman warned that while speculation typically centers on D.C. insiders, “Presidents sometimes pick others who are connected to the White House through other pipelines, e.g., longstanding friend, important supporter, [or from] industry.” 

Travis LeBlanc, like McDowell also with the Cooley firm in Washington, is another name to note, perhaps for the third FCC seat if Rosenworcel is named chair. He is a former FCC Enforcement Bureau chief and, more importantly in this context, former senior adviser to presumed incoming Vice President Kamala Harris back when she was California attorney general. Then there is FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who is connected to Harris through LeBlanc, who hired Starks at the Enforcement Bureau.

Don’t count Starks out for the FCC chairmanship or some other post, said one former FCC official said.