Congressional Republicans began a nine-day, multi-front attack on new net neutrality rules, opening with an assault on what they consider to be President Obama's improper influence on the regulator who drafted them.
At the first of five hearings he's scheduled to attend, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler was forceful Tuesday in saying that there were "no secret instructions" from the White House on his proposal and that he was not "strong-armed" by administration officials.
Wheeler pointed out, though, that Obama's public call for the toughest possible regulations to ensure the free flow of online traffic influenced the debate by adding to the existing momentum for that strategy.
"I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the president's recommendation," he told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
"But I did feel obligated to treat it with the respect it deserves, just as I have, with similar respect, the input both pro and con from 140 senators and representatives" who filed comments on the rules with his agency, Wheeler said.
Republicans strongly opposed the decision last month by the Democrat-controlled FCC to reclassify broadband as a more highly regulated telecommunications service under Title 2 of the Telecommunications Act.
The decision gives the FCC more power to prohibit broadband providers from blocking, slowing or selling faster delivery of legal content flowing through their networks. Wheeler's plan exempts broadband from rate regulation and many other provisions of Title 2.
The GOP is putting Wheeler and the FCC's two other Democrat commissioners on the hot seat over the rules. The proposal was approved Feb. 26 on a 3-2 party-line vote.
All five commissioners go before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday and the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday. Next week, Wheeler and Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai, an outspoken opponent of the net neutrality regulations, are scheduled to testify before the House Appropriations Committee and the House Judiciary Committee.
In addition, wired and wireless broadband providers are expected to sue to block the regulations.
Wheeler initially did not propose Title 2 authority, which imposes heavy regulations on phone service, but the draft rules that the FCC released in May sought public comment on whether to use that section.
On Nov. 10, after some 4 million comments had been filed with most seeking strong rules, Obama issued a statement and video urging the FCC to reclassify broadband under Title 2. That riled Republicans.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the oversight committee's chairman, said Obama's comments led Wheeler to "radically alter course" on his net neutrality proposal.
Although the president nominates the FCC commissioners, the agency is not supposed to be guided by the White House.
Chaffetz launched an investigation Feb. 6 to determine if the White House exercised "improper influence." The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also is looking into the matter.
And the FCC's inspector general's office has opened an investigation into the agency's drafting of its net neutrality regulations, Chaffetz said. A spokesman for the office did not return a call requesting comment.
Tuesday's hearing focused almost entirely on the process for drafting the rules. Chaffetz released a list of eight meetings Wheeler had with White House officials from June to November.
The oversight committee also released an April email exchange in which Wheeler told top Obama administration aides that a New York Times article incorrectly said he was going to propose weak net neutrality rules.
"Brutal story. Somebody going on the record to push back?" John Podesta, then a counselor to Obama, wrote to Wheeler on April 23. Wheeler assured Podesta that he had.
Obama has been an outspoken supporter of net neutrality regulations since he was a senator and made the position a key part of his 2008 presidential campaign. He nominated Wheeler, who had been a major fundraiser for Obama's campaigns, to head the FCC in 2013.
Wheeler said there were many other issues discussed in those meetings, and Obama administration officials did not tell him what to do on net neutrality.
"There were no secret instructions from the White House," he said.
But Chaffetz was skeptical and criticized Wheeler for failing to testify before the committee about the matter in February. Wheeler said there was not enough notice for that hearing.
"You met with them multiple times … but we invite you to come and you refuse," Chaffetz said. "And that double standard is very troubling."
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) pointed to a Nov. 6 meeting at the FCC between Wheeler and Jeffrey Zients, Obama's top economic advisor.
"My contention is Jeff Zients came to you and said, 'Hey, things have changed. We want the Title 2 approach to this rule,'" Jordan said. "Am I wrong?"
Wheeler responded, "Yes."
Wheeler's repeated denial of improper White House influence didn't convince Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.).
"I think Mr. Zients on Nov. 6 strong-armed you," Mica said.
Wheeler said his views on the issue evolved as the majority of public comments poured in urging a Title 2 approach. Obama's public statement added to the momentum, Wheeler said.
"The president's focus on Title 2 put wind in the sails of everyone looking for strong open Internet protections," Wheeler said.