WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans on Tuesday accused independent regulators of bowing to White House pressure on “net neutrality,” citing thousands of emails and other documents that show close coordination between the Federal Communications Commission and senior aides to President Barack Obama.
The political sparring on Capitol Hill was unlikely to affect a decision by the FCC to impose tough new regulations on cable and wireless providers that supply the nation’s Internet service. And while the emails don’t suggest any blatant impropriety, they raise questions about whether senior Obama aides went to unusual lengths to engage independent regulators on a popular issue, and if the FCC gave these aides too much access to internal deliberations while shutting out Congress.
“A president should be able to weigh in, make his opinions known. I don’t have a problem with that. But this seems to be very one-sided,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Chaffetz said his office had been told that the FCC Inspector General’s office has opened an investigation into the agency’s deliberations process on its net neutrality decision. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he was not aware of any investigation.
An openly defiant Wheeler said keeping the White House up to date on FCC dealings isn’t unusual and that he won’t apologize for what he considers a transparent deliberations process.
“There were no secret instructions from the White House,” Wheeler told the committee. “I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the president’s recommendation.”
Much of the focus was on behind-the-scenes talks last year among lobbyists, agency staffers and White House aides as Wheeler struggled with how exactly to regulate Internet service. A court had knocked down the FCC’s previous legal approach, which had prohibited cable and wireless companies from blocking or slowing Internet traffic. The idea is known as net neutrality because it suggests Internet service providers shouldn’t discriminate against various web traffic.
On one hand were Internet activists who wanted regulators to treat the Internet much like the telephone, applying Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. This would require that companies act in the public’s best interest and not employ unfair business practices that might hurt consumers.
Industry officials warned this approach would be much too drastic and could freeze infrastructure investments.
Throughout the process, Wheeler gave the White House a front-row seat to the deliberations process, according to the emails. In one April 2014 email exchange, Wheeler loops in John Podesta, a close aide to Obama, denouncing a story by The New York Times that suggested the FCC would be too soft on net neutrality.
“Brutal story. Somebody going on the record to push back?” Podesta asks Wheeler in an email.
Wheeler responds: “Yes. I did with a statement similar to what I emailed you.”
Contact between the FCC and the White House escalated in the fall. On Nov. 6, Obama’s top assistant on economic policy — Jeffrey Zients — took the unusual step of meeting with Wheeler on the chairman’s turf at FCC headquarters. Zients told Wheeler that the president planned to call out the FCC to impose Title II rules.
The meeting raised some eyebrows. An AT&T lobbyist’s email to a top Wheeler aide suggested it was “bad for any semblance of agency independence.” The FCC aide, Philip Verveer, circulated the commentary among his colleagues with the note “FYI.”
Four days later, Obama released his YouTube video announcing his support for Title II. That same morning, a group of civilian protesters were outside Wheeler’s house blocking his car. Wheeler notes the timing cynically in an email that day to top aides.
“FYI. Isn’t it interesting,” Wheeler wrote. “The day of the (net neutrality) demonstration just happens to be the day folks take action at my house” and after the White House sends an email to its supporter list calling on “anyone who cares about saving the Internet.”
“Hmmm…” he concludes, signing his email “T.”
While Wheeler was exchanging emails and meeting with Obama’s aides, he declined to testify before Congress or pass along documents until after his decision was made.
“I think Mr. Zients on Nov. 6th, strong-armed you,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.