Congress probing White House role in FCC chief's net-neutrality plan

House and Senate committees launch probes of any White House role in FCC's net-neutrality proposal

Two congressional committees have launched investigations into whether the White House improperly influenced the net-neutrality proposal released last week by the head of the Federal Communications Commission.

On Monday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in a letter to explain his decision and produce documents related to communications and meetings involving the White House and agency officials concerning the issue.

Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told Wheeler he was concerned that there was “apparent pressure exerted on you and your agency by the White House.”

Last week, Wheeler proposed strict new federal oversight of online traffic to ensure Internet providers don't give preference to video and other content from some websites over others.

Wheeler's plan, circulated to his fellow commissioners ahead of a Feb. 26 vote, is much tougher than what he initially outlined early last year and closely follows the approach President Obama publicly called for in November.

“The FCC’s new position on net neutrality is not only a monumental shift from Chairman Wheeler’s original net-neutrality proposal but also a large deviation from the light regulatory touch applied to broadband services since the Clinton administration,” Johnson said in releasing the letter.

“The decision is wrong, and the process raises serious questions about the president's inappropriate influence over what is supposed to be an independent agency that derives its authority from Congress and not the White House,” Johnson said.

His letter follows a similar one sent to Wheeler on Friday by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Most Republicans strongly oppose the FCC's approach, which would put Internet service providers in the same classification as highly regulated telephone companies.

Although the president nominates the chairman and other FCC commissioners, the agency is independent and not supposed to be subject to White House control. Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the cable-TV and wireless industries and was a major fundraiser for Obama, who nominated him to head the FCC in 2013.

Republicans have charged that Obama unduly influenced Wheeler's proposal. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said Wheeler “succumbed to the bully tactics of political activists and the president himself.”

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said “the White House needs to get its hands off the FCC.” And Ajit Pai, one of two Republicans on the FCC, has called Wheeler's proposal, “President Obama's plan to regulate the Internet.”

Chaffetz said in a letter dated Friday that he was investigating reports indicating “views expressed by the White House potentially had an improper influence” on development of Wheeler's proposal.

He and Johnson cited a Wall Street Journal article last week that reported that two White House aides led a “secretive effort” to build support from outside groups for tough net-neutrality regulations.

The article did not indicate that the aides, Obama or other White House officials directly pressured Wheeler to take the more aggressive approach.

FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart said the agency had received the letters and was reviewing them. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Gigi Sohn, the FCC's special counsel for external affairs, said Friday that Wheeler's position on net-neutrality rules had been evolving before Obama made his public comments.

“I think what the president’s statement did was, rather than force the chairman’s hand, was give him cover to do something he already was thinking about doing,” Sohn said in an appearance on C-Span's “The Communicators” series.

Last week, in discussing the new proposal, senior FCC officials said Wheeler had decided last summer that his original approach wouldn't work and that it was possible to classify Internet service as a public utility yet exempt companies from most utility-related rules, much as the agency has done with wireless service.

Johnson asked Wheeler if the FCC was “aware of the 'unusual, secretive effort inside the White House' relating to net neutrality.”

He and Chaffetz asked for “all documents and communications” between the FCC and the White House regarding the net-neutrality rules. Both chairmen want the documents before the Feb. 26 vote.

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11:51 a.m.: This post has been updated with information about a second investigation by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

The original version of this post was published at 9:01 a.m.