Republicans angling to stymie President Joe Biden’s tech and telecom agenda are turning to an increasingly familiar tactic — dredging up his nominees’ mean tweets.
No matter that former President Donald Trump, who remains popular in the Republican Party and has hinted at a new run in 2024, regularly wielded social media to scorch his foes before the top platforms booted him off. Or that GOP lawmakers including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia use their social media perches to spar with critics.
Cruz and other Republicans say their big concern is the temperaments of nominees who would serve at two powerful independent agencies, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. Hence their outcry about tweets in which FCC nominee Gigi Sohn called Fox News “dangerous to our democracy” while FTC pick Alvaro Bedoya labeled Immigration and Customs Enforcement an “out-of-control domestic surveillance agency.”
The GOP pushback threatens to slow Democrats’ efforts to regain voting majorities at the two agencies, which play instrumental roles on issues including net neutrality, competition and data privacy. The Senate Commerce Committee deadlocked last week on Bedoya’s nomination, adding to the procedural hurdles Democrats must overcome to confirm him, while multiple Republicans told POLITICO they will put holds on Sohn if she advances to the floor.
The Senate is expected to approve another Biden FCC nominee, Democratic agency Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, on a comfortably bipartisan basis as soon as Tuesday. But that will still leave each agency split 2-2 between Democratic and Republican members.
“A lot of kitchen sink is being thrown in hopes it catches and convinces senators to ask these weird questions,” said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a tech activist group that supports both Sohn and Bedoya. (Sohn is an EFF board member.) “I really think the opposition is essentially about whether they want the FCC and FTC to actually function with working majorities — and I think it’s pretty clear they don’t, but they also don’t want to make it about that.”
Apologies and promises aren't cutting it with GOP lawmakers
Republicans have leaned into this strategy before, sinking Biden’s nomination of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget back in March after bringing up a stockpile of her personal Twitter barbs.
Cruz unveiled multiple poster boards of Sohn’s tweets at her confirmation hearing Wednesday, suggesting they portend an appetite for censoring conservatives.
“You have multiple tweets going after Fox News very directly,” Cruz chided Sohn, a longtime progressive advocate and former FCC adviser whom Biden tapped in October to fill the five-member commission’s open Democratic seat.
Sohn’s tweets, including one last year describing the right-leaning news network as “state-sponsored propaganda,” are driving attacks on her from conservatives like Fox host Tucker Carlson. A Wall Street Journal op-ed by a former Trump acting attorney general also cited a 2020 tweet in which she accused the then-president of “destroying the Constitution and this country.”
During her confirmation hearing, Sohn suggested that her past statements were “maybe too sharp” but said her opinions as a public interest advocate wouldn’t sway her decisions as a regulator. She committed to due diligence with ethics professionals if necessary.
“You will always know where I’m coming from, and my door will always be open,” she assured the senators.
The same type of flak is plaguing Bedoya, a Georgetown Law School professor who founded the university’s Center on Privacy & Technology. Besides condemning ICE “surveillance” — in a tweet thread that cited Georgetown research — Bedoya had retweeted a comparison between the 2016 Republican National Convention and a white supremacist rally.
“I see the record of someone who has been a left-wing activist, a provocateur, a bomb-thrower and an extremist,” Cruz admonished Bedoya at his hearing on Nov. 17.
Bedoya apologized during the hearing and expressed “regret” for some of the posts in his written responses to the senators’ questions.
“If confirmed, I am committed to serving as an unbiased and impartial commissioner,” he added.
Even so, every Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee voted against advancing Bedoya’s nomination last week.
Clock is ticking on Democrats' agenda
The unified GOP resistance to Bedoya was “really unfortunate,” Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told reporters, adding that she still hopes to move both nominees in the weeks ahead.
“People, as Sen. Cruz says, have the right to free speech, and people come here in different capacities,” Cantwell remarked. “And we should ask them about their policy positions.”
Democrats could still ram the nominations through the 50-50 Senate without GOP votes, but only if their caucus sticks together — and Republican procedural obstacles could sap scarce floor time. Republican opposition would also shut down the option of confirming Sohn and Bedoya through unanimous consent, a common means of securing rapid-fire approvals for uncontroversial nominees just before senators leave town.
Sohn also faced some skepticism during the hearing from Democratic Sens. Jacky Rosen of Nevada and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Rosen mentioned hearing concerns about Sohn’s past broadcast and copyright views, while Sinema prodded her over whether she would let Congress decide the fate of net neutrality. (Sohn said she would prefer legislation but said the FCC should begin the lengthy rulemaking to revive its Obama-era net neutrality safeguards).
Republicans insist the nominees’ past views are relevant to how they would do their jobs, particularly in Sohn’s case.
“A lot of her tweets go exactly to the kind of power that she would wield as an FCC commissioner over speech,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said in an interview. “That is enormous power.”
Echoes of the 'Fairness Doctrine'?
The FCC typically avoids wading into battles over content policy but oversees the television and radio marketplace, including broadcast licenses, rules affecting cable and satellite providers, and approvals of media industry mergers where licenses are at play.
Decades ago, the FCC imposed more restrictions on broadcast TV content — including in a set of long-abolished policies known as the “Fairness Doctrine” — and still does in limited contexts such as indecency rules. It generally doesn’t directly regulate the content of cable networks like Fox News.
Still, Republicans fear that Democrats will try to force traditional media companies to crack down on misinformation, similar to the pressure liberals have brought to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Such efforts unduly target conservative voices, the Republicans allege. (The online platforms deny any such bias.)
Republicans note that left-leaning groups are urging the FCC to penalize broadcasters who air bogus claims about the pandemic. In addition, a handful of House Democrats and Public Knowledge — the advocacy group Sohn co-founded and for many years led — have pushed TV providers to drop conservative cable channels like One America News because of falsehoods and conspiracy theories. House Democrats also want the FCC to scrutinize and potentially block the sale of a Spanish-language radio station, citing fears about misinformation and “silencing of progressive voices” by the new owner.
GOP lawmakers were largely silent when Trump used his role as president to call for reprisals against the “licenses” of networks such as NBC News and CNN over their allegedly false reporting. (Neither network actually has an FCC-issued broadcasting license). He also pressured the FCC to narrow online platforms’ liability protections after Twitter began fact-checking his tweets.
Then-FCC Chair Ajit Pai took no action on those pleas, saying at one point that "I believe in the First Amendment.”
The FTC’s former Republican chair, Joseph Simons, similarly declined to act on Trump’s request for the agency to take action against alleged anti-conservative bias by social media platforms.
The weight of 'baggage'
Testifying last week, Sohn said that when she criticized Fox, she typically did so to argue that misinformation spreads not only online but from traditional media companies, too. (“For all my concerns about #Facebook, I believe that Fox News has had the most negative impact on our democracy,” she wrote in one of the tweets Republicans have cited). And she said she has helped small programmers of all political stripes get on cable TV line-ups, including smaller conservative-leaning networks like One America News and Newsmax.
OAN and Newsmax both support Sohn’s nomination for that reason. Chris Ruddy, who heads Newsmax, was on the phone with Cruz last week advocating in Sohn’s favor.
In an interview with POLITICO earlier this year, Sohn distanced herself from any effort to revive the Fairness Doctrine, arguing that no one with any sway in Washington supports such a move.
Allies of the nominees contend that the GOP arguments collapse under scrutiny.
Many attacks on Sohn’s alleged anti-conservative animus, for example, mention a 2018 tweet in which she said the FCC should investigate whether right-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group “is qualified to be a broadcast licensee at all.” But Sohn wrote at the time that she was reacting to questions — raised by reporting in POLITICO — about whether Sinclair had misled the FCC while seeking approval for a proposed $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media. (Those concerns caused Pai to tank the merger).
Sohn’s critics said they’re also alarmed by her stances on a litany of copyright and media content debates. But Falcon said the FCC doesn’t even regulate many of those issues.
Sohn’s and Bedoya’s supporters feel an urgency to bypass these fights, especially after Biden waited so many months to name his picks for the top tech posts. “Most of the big-ticket items” the FCC would act on “take about a year to process through,” said Falcon, who previously worked with Sohn at Public Knowledge.
GOP lawmakers insist that the tweets are disqualifying.
Sullivan lumps in Sohn with what he sees as an array of “very far-left noms” from Biden, including nominees for posts at the Pentagon and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. He suggested that moderate Democrats are tired of “having to walk the plank” defending their records.
He also said he fears that the White House would designate Sohn as the FCC’s chair after the Senate confirms her, as Biden did earlier this year with FTC Chair Lina Khan. Sohn has denied having such conversations with the White House, but Sullivan remains wary.
“There’s plenty of qualified Americans who are Democrats who don’t have that kind of baggage that relates exactly to her temperament for the job,” the Alaska Republican remarked.