Simington was confirmed in a 49-46 vote. Ajit Pai, who has been chairman of the agency during the Trump administration, said last week he will step down on January 20, leaving the agency with a 2-2 split between Republican and Democrats.
Biden will be able to nominate a fifth commissioner to break a deadlock, but if Republicans control the Senate, they could seek to tie up Biden’s pick and keep the agency from passing some of the policy priorities of Democrats. There has been hope among progressive activists that a new Democratic majority on the FCC would restore a robust set of net neutrality rules, which were largely rolled back during Pai’s tenure.
Simington’s nomination was rooted in Trump’s attacks on social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, over alleged political bias against conservatives.
After Twitter began placing fact checks on his tweets last spring, Trump issued an executive order to review and modify a key law that shields tech platforms from liability for the way that they moderate third-party content. The FCC began the process of reviewing the law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, with the prospect that the Republican majority would back the president’s desire to punish social media giants.
But Michael O’Rielly, a Republican appointee who has been on the commission since 2013, gave a speech in July in which he expressed misgivings about the government playing a role in content moderation. O’Rielly had been facing Senate confirmation for another term on the commission and, abruptly, the White House rescinded his nomination. Simington, who had been an adviser to the Department of Commerce and played a role in implementing Trump’s executive order, was then put forward as a nominee.
Democrats opposed Simington’s nomination. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said on the Senate floor on Tuesday that he was “unprepared and unqualified.” He called the nomination “dangerous” because it threatened “the independence and political integrity of the FCC.”
Pai noted in a statement that Simington “was raised in a rural community, and his confirmation ensures that this important perspective will continue to be represented on the Commission for years to come as the FCC continues its work on bridging the digital divide.”