House GOP Probes White House Role in FCC’s Net-Neutrality Proposal

WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times/TNS) -

The House Republican majority’s top watchdog is launching an investigation into whether the White House improperly influenced the net-neutrality proposal released last week by the head of the Federal Communications Commission.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has written to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler asking for all documents related to communications and meetings involving White House and agency officials concerning the issue.

Last week, Wheeler proposed strict new federal oversight of online traffic to ensure internet providers don’t give preference to video and other content from some websites over others.

Most Republicans strongly oppose the FCC’s approach, which would classify internet service in the same way as highly regulated phone companies.

Wheeler’s plan, circulated to his fellow commissioners ahead of a Feb. 26 vote, is much tougher than what he initially outlined early last year and closely follows the approach President Barack Obama publicly called for in November.

Although the president nominates the chairman and other FCC commissioners, the agency is independent and not supposed to be subject to White House control. Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable-TV and wireless industries who was a major fundraiser for Obama, was nominated to head the FCC in 2013.

Republicans have charged that Obama unduly influenced Wheeler’s proposal. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said Wheeler “succumbed to the bully tactics of political activists and the president himself.”

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that “the White House needs to get its hands off the FCC.” And Ajit Pai, one of two Republicans on the FCC, has called Wheeler’s proposal “President Obama’s plan to regulate the internet.”

Chaffetz said in a letter dated Friday that he was investigating reports indicating “views expressed by the White House potentially had an improper influence” on development of Wheeler’s proposal.

He cited a Wall Street Journal article last week that reported that two White House aides led a “secretive effort” to build support from outside groups for tough net-neutrality regulations.

The article did not indicate that the aides, Obama or other White House officials directly pressured Wheeler to take the more-aggressive approach.

FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart said the agency was aware of the letter, sent Friday, and was reviewing it. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Gigi Sohn, the FCC’s special counsel for external affairs, said Friday that Wheeler’s position on net-neutrality rules had been evolving before Obama made his public comments.

“I think what the president’s statement did was, rather than force the chairman’s hand, was give him cover to do something he already was thinking about doing,” Sohn said in an appearance on C-Span.

Chaffetz asked for all documents, including calendar appointments, visitor logs and meeting minutes, related to communications between the FCC and the White House concerning net neutrality since Jan. 14, 2014, when a federal court struck down most of the agency’s rules governing online traffic.

The FCC must provide the documents no later than Feb. 20, six days before commissioners are scheduled to vote on Wheeler’s proposal, Chaffetz said.