Senate Republicans, desperate for an avenue of attack on the FCC chairman’s newly unveiled net neutrality proposal, are seizing upon the theory that the White House tampered with the independent agency’s planning.
On Monday, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sent FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler a letter “requesting [his] assistance in better understanding whether the White House and the FCC respected the proper boundaries established by Congress between the Executive Branch and independent agencies.”
“I am concerned,” Johnson wrote to Wheeler, “that undue outside pressures may have led you to this decision. In particular, my concern is the apparent pressure exerted on you and your agency by the White House.”
Johnson’s letter seizes upon the timeline of Wheeler’s comments on net neutrality, which show him hardening his stance in favor of strong regulations shortly after President Barack Obama publicly called for the FCC to adopt such rules. The president cannot order the chairman of the FCC to do anything because the commission, unlike the president’s cabinet departments, is formally independent. Other regulatory agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission, operate in the same way.
Sen. Johnson’s letter asked Wheeler to turn over “all documents and communications between or among any employee of the FCC and employees of the Executive Office of the President” related to the commission’s net neutrality deliberations. Johnson also wants Wheeler to answer a handful of pointed questions, such as, “Was the FCC aware of the ‘unusual, secretive effort inside the White House’ relating to net neutrality? Please explain.”
The demands carry a deadline of 5:00pm on Monday, Feb. 23, three days before the FCC will vote on Wheeler’s proposal, which calls for the FCC to classify the Internet as a utility and regulate it under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.
The Senate investigation into outside pressure influencing the FCC plan is the latest in a long string of Republican efforts to tar President Obama as the next Nixon. Republicans have held hearing after hearing on issues like IRS scrutiny of political groups claiming tax-exempt status; the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya; and the Department of Justice’s failed attempt to stop firearms trafficking in Operation Fast and Furious.
So far, no evidence of Obama’s ruthless Machiavellian scheming has emerged from the dozens of votes and hearings on these subjects.
Sen. Johnson’s investigation is of a piece with other conservative campaigns against the FCC’s plan to protect the open Internet. In January, House and Senate Republicans introduced their own, significantly weaker net neutrality bill, hoping to forestall an FCC vote. That didn’t work; the commission proceeded with its deliberations.
Then, on Feb. 4, a conservative group called Protect Internet Freedom launched a porn parody ad blasting net neutrality. PIF has ties to freshman Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), through the group’s co-founder Jordan Gehrke, who is a senior adviser to Sasse. Gehrke told the Daily Dot that the senator was not involved in the group’s operations, although the Tea Party legislator is strongly opposed to net neutrality.
Illustration by Max Fleishman