Biden’s FCC: Take a Number

Candidates crowd field for would-be next agency head

As former Vice President Joe Biden continues to rise in the polls, D.C. handicappers are seriously pondering who might be tapped for Federal Communications Commission chair in a Biden administration.

Candidate Biden has already signaled his FCC will be restoring network neutrality rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization, but since it is an independent agency, he will need to pick an FCC chief who “independently” shares that philosophy.

Names floated as could-be FCC chairs in a Biden administration include (from l.): former acting chair Mignon Clyburn, top Comcast exec David Cohen and current commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

Biden has already signaled his vice president will be a woman. Odds are good his FCC chair could be as well.

The FCC chair calculus will be different depending on how many Republicans decide to leave with the change in administration.

If more than just current FCC chairman Ajit Pai exits on the Republican side — he isn’t required to leave and could stay on as a commissioner, but that would be a “snow in July” occurrence — it would give Biden more latitude in picking the chair, said one executive. “If there is only one slot, one can assume that it is very unlikely that Biden would appoint a white male,” the executive said.

The following is based on informed speculation aided by various Washington communications sources who asked not to be identified.

Handicapping the Field

Mignon Clyburn, the former commissioner and first female chair of the FCC, was acting chair between the exit of Julius Genachowski and the confirmation of Tom Wheeler for the post, which took a while after Wheeler’s nomination was held up in the Senate.

According to a couple of sources, Clyburn’s name will be in the hopper this time around. Closing the rural and racial digital divide was one of her commission (and post-commission) priorities, an issue that has been top of mind given the pandemic and with the current heated conversation on racial bias.

RELATED: Biden FCC Would Restore Net Neutrality Rules

Then there is the fact that her father, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), essentially resurrected Biden’s campaign with his endorsement preceding the South Carolina primary, the former VP’s first big win, at a time when the media was all but anointing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as the presumptive candidate.

Blair Levin, policy adviser at New Street Research and the former architect of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, likes Clyburn’s chances. He said the job is hers if she wants it, which a top communications lobbyist says as well.

Some are arguing current Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has an inside track to the big chair. She had to exit the commission after her renomination got caught up in political infighting, but made it back onto the commission for a second bite of the apple and possibly a shot at the chairmanship.

Levin also says Rosenworcel is a leading contender.

David Cohen, Comcast senior executive VP and adviser to the cable company’s chairman and CEO, Brian Roberts, is another name that has been making the rounds of late, but one observer said he doubted Cohen would want the job. “It’s not big enough for him,” he said, adding that Cohen would warrant a cabinet post. “There are few people as talented and qualified for government service,” he added.

Before joining Comcast, Cohen was the longtime chief of staff to Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. Probably working against Cohen is Comcast’s position against net neutrality rules, given that Biden has said they would be coming back.

The other FCC Democrat, Geoffrey Starks, has to be in the conversation, said one veteran agency watcher, but added “there are an unusually large number of extremely qualified candidates this time around.”

Other Contenders

John Orlando is the former top CBS/Viacom lobbyist who left the company at the end of 2019. He worked on Capitol Hill for over a decade, including seven years as chief of staff to the iconic Rep. John Dingell (D.-Mich). Orlando, said one executive, is a “Democratic heavyweight with industry experience, gravitas and deep connections to House and Senate leadership,” recalling what he called the “adult” pick of Tom Wheeler by President Barack Obama.

Gigi Sohn is the former top aide to Wheeler. She has been a strong supporter of net neutrality rules, but was also willing to work with other stakeholders to find a way forward on the issue as head of Public Knowledge.

Clint Odom is the National Urban League’s senior VP for policy and advocacy and head of the Washington bureau and formerly a senior adviser at the FCC. His extensive experience as a top congressional Democratic aide includes legislative director for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is a candidate to be Biden’s vice president or perhaps attorney general.

John Branscome is the senior counsel on the Senate Commerce Committee. He has a lengthy resume that includes past FCC service in numerous capacities including legal advisor to two commissioners, and was counsel for communications and intellectual property for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), another legislator who helped Biden at a crucial time, in her case dropping out of the presidential race before her own home state primary and endorsing Biden.

Disney regulatory attorney Susan Fox, former senior legal advisor to former FCC chairman William Kennard, the agency’s first African-American chairman.

Larry Irving, former head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration under President Bill Clinton, coiner of the term “digital divide” and a member of the Internet Hall of Fame is another candidate that can’t be counted out if the Democrats take the White House.

Levin’s other potential picks include another Larry, Lawrence Strickling, who was also head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) — under Obama — and currently on the Biden policy team; and Karen Kornbluh, who was on the shortlist if Hillary Clinton had won and just got pushed out as a board member of Voice of America. Louisa Terrell, a former aide to then-Sen. Biden and former FCC chairman Wheeler and past head of the Biden Foundation, is the “dark horse” candidate.

Levin has been talked about as a candidate, but he said his money is on any of the other candidates before himself. λ