The head of the Federal Communications Commission told lawmakers Tuesday that there were “no secret instructions” from the White House on the agency’s tough new net-neutrality regulations, as he faced Republican allegations that President Barack Obama improperly influenced the independent agency’s rule-making process.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he listened to all the input in “one of the most open and expansive processes the FCC has ever run” — including nearly 4 million public comments — in crafting his proposal for high-speed internet traffic that was approved in a party-line 3-2 vote last month.
Obama’s “very public” statement in November calling for the same controversial approach the Democratic-controlled commission adopted was just one of the factors, Wheeler told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“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 said. “But I did feel obligated to treat it with the respect it deserves just as I have with similar respect the input both pro and con — from 140 senators and representatives.”
But Wheeler said Obama’s public call on Nov. 10 for the FCC to reclassify broadband as a more highly regulated telecommunications service under Title 2 of the Telecommunications Act had an impact on the debate.
“Of course it did,” Wheeler said.
“The president’s weighing in to support their position gave the whole Title 2 issue new prominence,” Wheeler said, noting that he had been working on a similar approach.
“The president’s focus on Title 2 put wind in the sails of everyone looking for strong open-internet protections,” Wheeler said.
Tuesday’s congressional hearing was the first of five at which Wheeler is scheduled to appear during the next eight days as House and Senate Republicans look to express their opposition to the net-neutrality regulations.
Oversight committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) launched an investigation on Feb. 6 to determine if the White House had an “improper influence” over the development of the rules.
Although the president nominates the chairman and other FCC commissioners, the agency is independent and not supposed to be guided by the White House.
On Tuesday, Chaffetz said Obama’s comments caused Wheeler to “radically alter course” on his net-neutrality proposal so it would follow the president’s approach.
“The lack of transparency surrounding the open-internet rule-making process leaves us with a lot of questions,” Chaffetz said.
Chaffetz aggressively questioned Wheeler about 10 meetings he had with the White House before the net-neutrality proposal was finalized.
Wheeler said the White House did not instruct him what approach to take in those meetings, but Chaffetz was skeptical, and criticized Wheeler for refusing a committee request to testify before the committee about the matter in February before the FCC vote.
“You met with them multiple times … but we invite you to come and you refuse,” Chaffetz said. “And that double standard is very troubling.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) pointed to a Nov. 6 meeting at the FCC between Wheeler and Jeffrey Zients, Obama’s top economic adviser.
“My contention is Jeff Zients came to you and said, ‘Hey, things have changed. We want the Title 2 approach to this rule.’ Am I wrong?”
Wheeler responded, “Yes.”
And when asked by Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), “Did Obama muscle you?”
“No, the president did not,” Wheeler said.
But that didn’t convince Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.).
“I think Mr. Zients on Nov. 6 strong-armed you,” Mica said.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), also is investigating the White House role in the FCC’s net-neutrality regulations.
Chaffetz and Johnson said they began their probes after a Feb. 4 Wall Street Journal article detailed what it called “an unusual, secretive effort inside the White House” by two Obama administration aides to build a case for tough net-neutrality rules.
The article did not say that the aides or any other White House officials improperly influenced Wheeler to change his proposal. Democrats noted that past presidents have made public appeals to the FCC to take specific actions.