There’s nothing neutral about the FCC’s partisan politics


FCC commissioners, from left, Ajit Paj, Mignon Clyburn, chairman Tom Wheeler, Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O’Rielly during Thursday's vote on net neutrality. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

The Federal Communications Commission split along partisan lines Thursday in its vote on net neutrality rules: All three Democrats voted for the proposal, while the two Republicans opposed it.

That may be not be surprising, considering the issue at hand pits large businesses against grass-roots consumer advocates. But the vote is also evidence of the internal frictions between the FCC's Democratic majority and Republican minority.

The nation's top telecom regulator is composed of five members, each nominated by the president and approved by Congress. Generally, the only time we get to see those members interact is when they appear before the public at the commission's monthly open meeting. In recent weeks, though, we've had brief glimpses of their behind-the-scenes relationship, thanks to unusually public statements about the inner workings of the agency.

On Thursday, Republican commissioner Ajit Pai complained that the Democrats recently sent him a revised draft of a proposal at the last minute, forcing him to compare both drafts in the wee hours of the night to see what had changed.

 

That followed a similar complaint earlier this week, when Pai's spokesperson, Matthew Berry, had this to say: “When it comes to the Chairman's latest net neutrality proposal, the Democratic Commissioners are in the fast lane and the Republican Commissioners apparently are being throttled. The Chairman's Office should end this discrimination and stop blocking the Republican Commissioners from seeing the Chairman's latest plan.”

There apparently are divisions within the majority party, too. On Thursday, Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel opened her remarks by flatly: "I support the open Internet, but I would've done this differently."

Robert McDowell, a former Republican FCC commissioner, believes that particular divide can be more easily bridged than the one between the two political parties.

"Generally speaking, the regulatory philosophies of Commissioner Rosenworcel and Chairman Wheeler are very similar," he said. "I doubt they will differ on their approaches in the vast, vast majority of cases. Sometimes that causes friction in their relationship, but they'll get past it."

Asked about the Republican pushback on his net neutrality plan, Wheeler said he had a "hard time associating myself with the comments [they made] today."

"They think the whole idea of the open Internet is not something we should be involved in, and I disagree strenuously," he said.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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Brian Fung · May 15