There was a lot more heat than light today from a House committee hearing exploring whether the White House secretly and inappropriately directed the FCC’s recent decision to adopt tough net neutrality rules. GOP lawmakers battered FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler with questions that suggested he was doing the president’s bidding while he kept the public and lawmakers at bay. The seasoned former lobbyist kept his composure, and maintained that the process was “one of the most transparent and open in the Commission’s history.”
House Committee On Oversight & Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) led the attack. He charged that, prior to the FCC vote, Wheeler “did not make the open Internet rule public, did not invite public comment, and declined to appear before this Committee. We find that wholly unacceptable.”
He noted that Wheeler’s calendar showed about 10 meetings with White House officials after mid May 2014, although the administration summarized just one for the FCC files that disclose ex parte communications. “We’re supposed to believe [net neutrality] didn’t come up?” Chaffetz asked about the other meetings.
The FCC chairman said that most dealt with other subjects — including trade, national security, spectrum auctions, and e-rate policy. “The administration was very scrupulous” about reporting when it offered a view on an open proceeding.
Chaffetz also looked askance at emails between Wheeler and the White House. He zeroed in on one from April 2014 to former Obama counselor John Podesta saying that a New York Times report that the FCC was about to gut the open Internet rule was “flat out wrong” — and that the FCC was about to say as much to the public. “You’re supposed to be an independent agency, and you’re interacting with the White House on PR for a New York Times story?” the committee chairman asked.
Wheeler, for his part, said that last year — after the U.S. Appeals Court in DC remanded the FCC’s previous net neutrality rules — he hoped to revive them without reclassifying the Internet as a regulated communications service. He changed his mind after he saw how hard it would be to enforce a law without citing authority under Title II of the Communications Act, and in response to public opinion. That included at least 4 million emails — which broke the FCC’s system after HBO’s John Oliver asked viewers to write — that ran 3-to-1 in favor of tough net neutrality rules.
In that context, the president was one of many voices in November when he called on the FCC to support Internet reclassification. “The job of a regulator is to put forth a proposal, and to learn from that experience, and to evolve,” Wheeler said.
He also defended the FCC’s decision to not release the final rules until after commissioners voted. Up until then “there were changes being made….We never put out a draft before those edits.”