Biden Nominates Rosenworcel as F.C.C.’s First Female Leader
Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chairwoman of the powerful regulator, campaigned vigorously for a permanent appointment.,
President Biden on Tuesday nominated Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, to the permanent job, putting her on track to become the first woman to lead the agency.
If she is confirmed by the Senate, Ms. Rosenworcel would lead an agency whose responsibilities include ensuring that millions of Americans have internet access. The F.C.C. promotes competition among providers, scrutinizes mergers between telecommunications and broadcast companies, and regulates communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable.
Mr. Biden also named Gigi B. Sohn to the seat on the five-member commission vacated by Ms. Rosenworcel when she became the acting chairwoman. Ms. Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, served from 2013 to 2016 as counselor to Tom Wheeler, a former F.C.C. chairman. If confirmed by the Senate, Ms. Sohn would be the F.C.C.’s first openly L.G.B.T.Q. commissioner, the White House said in its announcement.
The nominations reflect the Biden administration’s commitment to restoring net neutrality rules, which promote competition in part by barring internet providers from blocking certain content, slowing its delivery or letting clients pay more to have it delivered faster. The F.C.C. adopted the rules during the Obama administration but rolled them back under the Trump administration.
The president has come under growing pressure in recent weeks to fill the two open spots at the F.C.C. Both positions must be confirmed by the Senate, a process plagued by delays and political gamesmanship. If Ms. Rosenworcel and the next member of the commission are not confirmed before the end of the year, Republicans could gain a de facto majority. The commission is currently deadlocked, with two Democratic and two Republican members. In a further complication, Ms. Rosenworcel’s term ends at the end of this year, and if she is not confirmed by then she would have to rotate off the commission while awaiting Senate approval.
“There’s no historical precedent and pretty wide frustration from the consumer side that we haven’t had an agency able to do anything about something as important to people’s lives as broadband access,” said Ernesto Falcon, the senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public-interest law firm working on digital civil liberties. The group has pushed the F.C.C. to move faster on expanding access to underserved communities, a goal that has taken on increased urgency during the coronavirus pandemic.
“When you have wide-scale monopolization on broadband access and a sidelined agency, clearly it’s the industry that benefits,” Mr. Falcon said.
Though the F.C.C.’s actions directly affect companies making up one-sixth of the U.S. economy, it has no authority over communications on social media, where rampant political misinformation has made the big platforms a regulatory priority.
When asked in an interview why she wanted to lead the commission, Ms. Rosenworcel said, “It’s the future of our economy, and I think we have to make sure across the board that women are represented, including at the top.”
Ms. Rosenworcel, 50, campaigned vigorously for the permanent job, with female members of Congress, five labor unions, 14 human rights groups and two dozen Senate Democrats lobbying Mr. Biden to nominate her. In a recent letter to the White House, 33 congresswomen endorsed Ms. Rosenworcel as an experienced F.C.C. official who “has spoken openly about how working mothers can be policy leaders.”
She and her husband, Mark I. Bailen, a media lawyer at BakerHostetler, married in 2000 and live with their two children in Washington. They are well-known in the city’s overlapping legal and communications technology circles.
After his wife became the acting chairwoman in January, Mr. Bailen said he resigned as a partner at BakerHostetler and became a salaried employee on the advice of government ethics counsel.
BakerHostetler represents clients with business before the F.C.C. But the firm maintains “an effective firewall that excludes me from any work or any discussion of any work related to the F.C.C.,” Mr. Bailen said in an email.
His high-profile news media clients have included The New York Times and, until late last year, Alex Jones, the Infowars broadcaster who faces a half-dozen defamation lawsuits, including four related to his spreading of conspiracy theories about the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.
In an interview, Ms. Rosenworcel said that First Amendment lawyers like her husband “support the right to free speech, which is not always speech you agree with.”
“We lead very separate professional lives,” she said.
After The Times asked about Mr. Bailen’s work for Mr. Jones and Infowars, he repeatedly contacted The Times’s legal department, raising what he said were the couple’s concerns about fairness and complaining that coverage of his past work could affect his wife’s ability to secure the F.C.C. nomination. An F.C.C. spokeswoman confirmed that Ms. Rosenworcel knew her husband would contact The Times about the article.
The White House screens all potential nominees’ spouses for possible financial conflicts of interest. The Biden administration has brightened that line in an effort to distinguish itself from the ethical lapses of the Trump administration. Last year, Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, quit a lucrative career at the law and lobbying firm DLA Piper to avoid the appearance of a financial conflict.
“These issues become more pronounced because you’re seeing more gender equity in government,” said Max Stier, the chief executive of Partnership for Public Service, which tracks the appointments process. “There are a bunch of examples like this, and fundamentally, they’re a political choice for the White House.”
As the acting chairwoman, Ms. Rosenworcel has pursued politically uncontroversial initiatives on the evenly split commission, targeting robocalls and working on measures to help wireless networks better withstand severe weather. In February, she proposed using $3.2 billion in pandemic emergency funds to underwrite internet access for low-income households. The Emergency Broadband Benefit program has since surpassed five million enrollees.
Ms. Rosenworcel said a top priority was narrowing the “homework gap,” the educational disadvantage experienced by students who lack internet at home.
“We’re getting a lot done, even though we are shy a member,” she said of the commission. “I’m proud of that record and appreciate that my colleagues have been willing to work with me.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut was among 25 Democratic senators who signed an urgent letter to Mr. Biden last month endorsing Ms. Rosenworcel. The senators said that continued delay in filling the F.C.C. vacancies could hold up the distribution of $65 billion in broadband funding allocated to the F.C.C. and other agencies, and the continuing distribution of $27 billion in pandemic aid aimed at expanding access to the internet for struggling households.
“Given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure all people have access to broadband, it is absolutely essential that there are trusted, qualified appointees leading these agencies,” the letter read.
A native of Connecticut, Ms. Rosenworcel attended Wesleyan University and New York University Law School. In 2001, she joined the staff of the F.C.C. commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, rising to senior adviser.
After six years, Ms. Rosenworcel left the commission for Capitol Hill, serving as the senior counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee. She worked with Senator Jay Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia, on legislation to address communications problems among emergency workers during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“We gained an immense respect for the thoughtfulness and the genuine concern that she had for public safety issues,” said Jeff Johnson, the chief executive of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, who worked with her on plans for the first responders’ network now known as FirstNet. “She became someone we completely trust, and still do.”
Ms. Rosenworcel returned to the F.C.C. in 2011 as President Barack Obama’s nominee to the commission, and she was reappointed by President Donald J. Trump in 2017.
In 2018, while serving on the commission, Ms. Rosenworcel spoke to the National Association of Broadcasters, rallying journalists against Mr. Trump’s attacks on the news media. She said his term “fake news” had reached her dinner table, used as a taunt by one of her children.
“I am stunned at the casualness with which my second grader told his fifth-grade sister to take a hike,” Ms. Rosenworcel said, denouncing how the phrase had “complicated what we believe is true and false, and how that has chilling consequences for those who seek to report — without fear or favor — on the news we need to know.”
When the Republican-dominated commission rolled back net neutrality during the Trump administration, Ms. Rosenworcel was a vocal opponent. Restoring net neutrality is a priority for the Biden administration.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.