This morning, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler faced a barrage of questions from Republicans who suggested that the White House wrongly meddled in the agency's decision to impose net neutrality rules.
Wheeler repeatedly denied that the Obama administration exerted undue influence. “There were no secret instructions from the White House,” Wheeler said in his prepared testimony. “I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the President’s recommendation. But I did feel obligated to treat it with respect just as I have with the input I received -- both pro and con -- from 140 senators and representatives.”
The three-hour House Oversight Committee hearing originally was supposed to take place the day before the FCC voted to enact new broadband regulations. But Wheeler refused to appear on that date, prompting committee head Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to reschedule the panel for today.
Chaffetz, along with some other Republicans, suggested that the FCC's decision to reclassify broadband as a utility service was driven by Obama, who publicly called for the agency to do so in a speech delivered on Nov. 10. In addition to reclassifying broadband service, the FCC voted last month to prohibit broadband providers from blocking traffic and from discriminating among content providers by creating paid fast lanes.
The Republican critics repeatedly pointed out that Wheeler initially didn't appear to favor reclassification. Instead, in May he proposed that the FCC could impose new net neutrality rules under a provision of the Telecommunications Act that tasks the agency with promoting broadband deployment.
But Wheeler countered that even last May, the agency sought comment on whether it should reclassify broadband as a utility. He also reminded the lawmakers that he said last summer that all options -- including reclassifying broadband as a utility service -- remained on the table.
When questioned about the impact of Obama's Nov. 10 statement, Wheeler said he interpreted the speech as a sign that the president was “identifying with” the 64 Democratic members of Congress, and the millions of commenters, who were already on record as supporting stronger neutrality rules.
Still, Chaffetz and others repeatedly questioned why Wheeler met with the White House on 10 occasions last year. The FCC's net neutrality docket reflected only one of those meetings, according to Chaffetz. Wheeler said that the agency's “ex parte” rules don't require documentation in the docket of every meeting. He added that he discussed a variety of topics with the White House, including spectrum policy and cybersecurity issues, at those meetings.
Meanwhile, net neutrality advocates questioned why lawmakers were even holding the hearing.
“Congress should be cheering the FCC for listening to the millions of Americans who called for real net neutrality,” Free Press Action Fund Policy Director Matt Wood said today in a statement. “These rules are an example of Washington actually working for the people -- responding to a massive public outcry to protect Internet users and keep powerful corporations in check."