FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is taking a tour of Congress this week to give opponents of his new net neutrality rules a chance to grill him on their specifics — and to investigate whether President Obama had any undue influence on the plan. Wheeler spoke before the House oversight committee this morning, frequently calling out the lengths that the FCC went to in seeking public input on its Open Internet rules. But mostly, Wheeler just addressed Republican accusations that he bent to behind-the-scenes White House pressure.
"There were no secret instructions from the White House."
"Here I would like to be clear. There were no secret instructions from the White House," Wheeler said. "I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the president’s recommendation."
Wheeler pointed out, as he's been doing over the past few weeks, that nearly 4 million people gave feedback on the original net neutrality proposal, all of which is meant to be fed into the final rules. There's been a very prominent push for Title II regulation, so Wheeler has plenty of backing to point to when trying to convince opponents that Obama isn't the only one pushing for it. And, seriously, he did that a lot. "You have asked whether there were secret instructions from the White House," Wheeler said. "Again, I repeat the answer is no."
That said, Wheeler admits that Obama's support for Title II did have some impact. But that impact, he says, was in giving the issue "new prominence" and getting Republicans to start considering net neutrality legislation. He also says that Obama's announcement allowed the commission to examine market reactions to the possibility of Title II without rate regulations — as the commission is implementing. According to Wheeler, there was no change in the markets.
Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chair of the committee, focused his questioning on the possibility of White House influence. He asked Wheeler why he agreed to meet with the White House but wouldn't meet with Congress. The questioning did not go well. A loose transcription:
Chaffetz: You met with them multiple times ... We invite you to come, and you refuse. We ask you to send us some documents, you didn't send us a single one. That double standard is very troubling for us. I need to move on.
Wheeler: I did agree to come. I'm here.
C: Before the rule. You met with the White House, but you didn't come here.
W: You gave me a week's notice.
C: That's usually what we give people.
W: Mr. Chairman, there are other committees I'm trying to respond to. I said I looked forward to coming here.
C: I didn't believe you then, and I don't believe you now. You said that you would not come to visit with us. You didn't send us a single document we asked for.
W: I think we sent you 1,800 documents.
C: After the rule.
C: I'm moving on.
Chaffetz also presented Wheeler with a previously redacted email that he sent remarking on how protestors were outside his house the same day that Obama announced his support of Title II. "The day of the demonstration just happens to be the day folks take action at my house," Wheeler writes. His email ends, "Hmmm..."
House Oversight releases this email by @TomWheelerFCC (previously redacted) pic.twitter.com/3xvTnsGWtf— Brian Fung (@b_fung) March 17, 2015
In his line of questioning, Chaffetz asked Wheeler whether this implied that the FCC was coordinating with the White House. Wheeler appeared, perhaps, embarrassed, as the email actually seems to be him implying that the White House coordinated with protestors to bother him. "This clearly is a showing that there was no kind of coordination," Wheeler said, referring to a relationship between the FCC and the White House.
Questioners asked when the FCC started looking into Title II
Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), in an aggressive line of questioning that didn't often give Wheeler a chance to speak, focused on how the commission appeared to have only decided on Title II after Obama's statement. Jordan pointed out that, prior to Obama's support, the commission appeared to be leaning toward using Section 706. Wheeler argued that this is not entirely correct. The original proposal, he says, specifically inquired about the use of Title II. He also brought up a New York Times report saying that there were four options under consideration as of about two weeks before Obama's statement. Though the Times' report focuses on the hybrid Section 706 / Title II approach, it does mention that sole Title II and dual Title II and 706 were under investigation as well.
Though we've heard all of these questions time and again, Wheeler's ability to answer them is important. As an independent agency, its net neutrality rules should come from its leaders with influence from public comments — not based largely on the whims of the White House. And signs of White House influence could make things harder for the commission when it inevitably has to defend these rules in court. While the commission generally has the ability to make these changes based on its own interpretation of legal statutes, it might lose that ability if a court believes that it didn't actually come to that interpretation on its own. Wheeler is going to be answering these questions ad nauseam, and that's a big part of the reason why.
If you've enjoyed this installment of Wheeler Heads to Congress, you can look forward to more very soon. Hearings with him and the other commissioners follow on both Wednesday and Thursday, both of which are likely to have a heavy focuses on net neutrality. Politico reports that Wheeler will then have two more House committee meetings next week, both with Republican commissioner — and opponent of these rules — Ajit Pai.