WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans kicked off an aggressive, net neutrality "fact-finding" mission on Tuesday, forcing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler to defend against their allegations that the White House improperly exerted influence on the independent agency's decision process.
At Tuesday's House hearing, Democrats sounded exasperated by Republican tactics, suggesting more than once that popular comedian and talk-show host John Oliver influenced the FCC's decision, and the agency simply listened to the American people.
Last month, the FCC cast a historic vote along party lines in favor of strong net neutrality rules. The decision approves reclassification of consumer broadband Internet as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act, a move strongly backed by millions of Americans, tech companies like Google and the president, who issued a statement in support of Title II in November.
Most congressional Republicans oppose the new rules and favor looser regulations backed by telecom and cable companies. They are pushing draft legislation that would gut the FCC's strong rules. As part of their anti-net neutrality campaign, Republicans have launched investigations into whether the agency passed strong Internet protections because it was strong-armed by the White House.
Wheeler will appear at five hearings over the next two weeks to discuss the issue. At the Tuesday hearing before the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, Republicans attempted to collect evidence that Wheeler secretly cooperated with the White House, allegations that he firmly denied. The committee has reportedly received over 1,600 pages of unredacted emails about the FCC decision.
"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."
Presidents routinely express their positions on issues before the FCC. The George W. Bush administration weighed in on media deregulation and both the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations expressed opinions on financial interest and syndication rules, according to Public Knowledge, a group that supports net neutrality.
Republicans repeatedly pointed to news reports from last fall indicating that Wheeler was favoring a "hybrid" approach that provided concessions to telecom and cable companies, as evidence that Wheeler changed his approach after President Barack Obama came out in support of Title II. Wheeler discounted those reports, noting that at the time, multiple approaches were on the table.
Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who described Tuesday's gathering as a "fact-finding hearing," highlighted meetings that Wheeler had with White House staffers, most of which Wheeler insisted covered other topics such as trade. At one point, Chaffetz attempted to string together a protest that occurred at Wheeler's house on the same day as the president's announcement and a subsequent Wheeler email that noted the timing and read, "Hmm," as evidence of some kind of improper coordination involving the FCC.
Wheeler, who was often cut off by Republicans when answering questions, started laughing. "This clearly is showing that there was no kind of coordination," he responded.
Democrats pointed to the overwhelming public support for net neutrality as the driving influence behind the FCC's decision. Comedian John Oliver, for example, encouraged viewers to submit comments to the FCC in favor of net neutrality. At one point, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked Wheeler who had a greater impact, "President Obama's comment or John Oliver's show?"
Wheeler didn't give a direct answer. "I tend to view that what was going on was the president was signing on to the 64 members of Congress and the millions of people who had [said] they wanted Title II," he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee's ranking member, said there was "no evidence" to support the allegation that the president exerted undue influence on the process. He noted that the agency's Republican commissioners should also be scrutinized over evidence that they cooperated with lawmakers and outside groups to oppose net neutrality.
At one point during the hearing, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) asked Wheeler to respond to allegations that his posture appeared "apologetic" since the agency's net neutrality decision.
"Oh my goodness, Congressman," Wheeler said. "There is no way I'm apologetic. I'm fiercely proud of this decision."