House Republicans are putting the head of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, through the wringer this week over his agency's recent vote to apply strong new regulations on Internet providers. The GOP’s chief criticism these days is that Wheeler and his staff improperly coordinated with the White House over how to write those regulations.
Wheeler has pushed back against the allegations. In a face-off with House Republicans Tuesday, the chairman argued that his discussions with the Obama administration have covered a wide range of issues, from cybersecurity to trade. He also argued that it is not unusual for a president to make his opinions known, and that there were no "secret instructions" from the White House on net neutrality.
"I think the insinuation from my friends on the other side is there's something sinister here [about those discussions] … to tailor the rules," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).
But GOP lawmakers led by Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, are releasing previously redacted e-mails between FCC officials and members of the White House staff, lobbyists and others in an attempt to show evidence of undue influence.
One of the first e-mails released by the committee refers to a meeting that White House economic adviser Jeff Zients had with Wheeler on Nov. 6. In the e-mail, a top lobbyist for AT&T suggested that the meeting made it appear that the agency was not as independent as it claimed.
Another e-mail, from Wheeler to his senior staff, implied that there was a less-than-coincidental connection between some of the net neutrality protests last November and President Obama's decision on the same day to come out in favor of "the strongest possible rules." Republicans seized on this as evidence of illegal "coordination," though Wheeler responded that if anything, his e-mail showed that he was not involved in it any way.
A third e-mail, between Wheeler and a top aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, suggested a split between top congressional Democrats and President Obama over net neutrality. Reid wanted Obama to "back off Title II," referring to the strong regulation the White House apparently wanted implemented as early as May.
A fourth e-mail between Wheeler and Obama adviser John Podesta concerns a New York Times article that Podesta described as "brutal."
"Somebody going on the record to push back?" Podesta asked.
"Yes," Wheeler replied. "I did with a statement similar to what I emailed you."
"You're interacting regularly with the White House on how to communicate on the PR of the Times' story?" Chaffetz asked Wheeler incredulously Tuesday.
"I was … responding and saying you should know that report is not true," said Wheeler, who added that he had sent similar e-mails to members of Congress in response.
Republicans hope to use e-mails like these to skewer the FCC — and President Obama. But don't expect it to change the substance of the FCC's rules anytime soon. The regulations, which were published on the FCC's Web site last week, are currently making their way into the official record. Analysts widely expect Internet providers to challenge the regulations in court. And once that happens, the debate will move from Congress to the courts.