CIO Briefing

FCC Race to Replace Obama's Top Tech Wonk Just Got More Interesting

Jessica Rosenworcel is currently an FCC commissioner.

Jessica Rosenworcel is currently an FCC commissioner. // FCC

The odds of President Obama nominating a woman to head a top federal agency just got much better.

Dozens of Senate Democrats have jointly sent a letter to the White House recommending that he choose a current Federal Communications Commission official, Jessica Rosenworcel, to succeed outgoing Julius Genachowski as chairman. Last Friday, Genachowski announced that he will be leaving the FCC soon. If Obama nominates Rosenworcel, she wouldn't have to be confirmed by the Senate — and she would become the first woman to head the agency in its 79-year history. In addition to her current work as one of five FCC commissioners, Rosenworcel was also a top aide to then-Commissioner Michael Copps in the 2000s. 

In all, 37 liberal senators signed the letter. The list includes Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va.; Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. It's not much of a surprise to see Rockefeller get behind Rosenworcel; as his former staffer on the Commerce Committee, she enjoys close ties with the senator. 

It's unlikely that all of the Senate signatures could have been assembled without a lot of preparation, meaning that the letter is as much a demonstration of Rosenworcel's political clout as an expression of Senate support. There's just one problem: It makes picking a nominee much more politically delicate for the White House.

Rosenworcel is a junior commissioner. The only way she could be nominated for Genachowski's job is if Obama passes over a more senior FCC official who is also a woman: Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. If that last name sounds familiar, it's because she is the daughter of Rep. James Clyburn of South carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House.

You can see where this is headed. Although Rosenworcel's chances are now much improved, Obama will have to make somebody unhappy. Either he'll have to snub someone related to a key figure in the House, or he'll have to upset a handful of allies in the Senate.

Other top names that have been floated to become the FCC chair include Tom Wheeler, a former representative for the cable-TV and wireless industries who raised $246,000 for the 2012 Obama campaign; Karen Kornbluh, the sitting U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; and Larry Strickling, head of the Obama administration's advisory body for telecom issues.

Among the president's second-tier options are Cathy Sandoval, the California Public Utilities Commission chief, and Susan Crawford, a former economic adviser to Obama under Larry Summers. According to one industry insider, both Crawford and Sandoval are "wishful thinking" choices and aren't likely to be picked given their rather liberal positions on telecom issues.

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// October 23
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