By Julian Hattem - 03/17/15 10:34 AM EDT
Tom Wheeler took a pummeling on Tuesday over charges that his agency secretly colluded with the White House and avoided the eyes of the public while developing tough new Internet regulations.
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) he repeatedly sparred with Republican lawmakers during a House Oversight Committee hearing, at times raising his voice to defend the net neutrality regulations.
At the end of that hearing, he was told that his agency’s watchdog had launched an investigation into his writing of new net neutrality rules, which could turn into a protracted legal battle over the process.
“There were no secret instructions from the White House,” Wheeler told the committee.
“I’m proud of the process that the commission ran to develop this order,” he added. “It was one of the most open and transparent in commission history, and the public’s participation was unprecedented.”
The FCC chief has for weeks been on the defense over allegations that his independent agency was bullied by President Obama to embrace the tough rules that treat broadband Internet service like a public utility.
Republicans fired back with the revelation that Wheeler had taken part in nine previously secret meetings with top White House aides while developing the rules.
While Wheeler claimed those meetings never touched on the Web regulations, GOP lawmakers were incredulous.
“The lack of transparency surrounding the open Internet rule-making process leaves us with a lot of questions,” said Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
“You meet with the White House multiple times ... and we’re supposed to believe that one of the most important things the FCC has ever done, that this doesn’t come up?” he charged.
The previously undisclosed meetings were only the latest grievance of GOP lawmakers, who also accused the FCC of unnecessarily redacting information released under the Freedom of Information Act and hiding behind commission precedence to not release the text of the rules to the public before it was issued last month. Wheeler has the legal powers to release rules early but the FCC has a long history of not doing that.
Chaffetz hinted at the possibility of new legislation to force agencies like the FCC to make new regulations public for a month before enacting them.
“One of the things that’s evident to me is that we’re going to have to compel openness and transparency, because given the choice the FCC chose not to do that,” he said after the session.
At the end of the session, Chaffetz revealed that he had been informed that the FCC’s inspector general had launched an investigation into the matter.
“It’s my understanding that it’s not an audit, not an inspection, but it’s an actual investigation,” he said.
Wheeler said he was previously unaware of the probe but would cooperate.
Tuesday morning’s hearing was Wheeler’s first appearance on Capitol Hill since FCC Democrats voted last month to issue the tough Web rules that treat broadband Internet service like a public utility.
As he and his fellow commissioners head to four additional committees over the next eight days, critics of the rules will likely use news of the meetings and the new inspector general probe as additional indications of foul play.
Republicans have fiercely opposed the rules and worried that the White House may have had an undue influence on the process by spurring Wheeler towards embracing the tougher rules.
The FCC had previously been seen to be leaning towards a lighter set of rules, but “all that seemed to change on Nov. 10,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (D-Ohio), when President Obama released a highly publicized YouTube video calling for stronger regulations.
Days before, White House economic advisor Jeff Zients had paid a visit to the FCC in a previously disclosed meeting to tell Wheeler what Obama had planned.
But critics thought another dynamic was at play.
“I think Mr. Zients on November 6th strong-armed you,” said Rep, John Mica (R-Fla.). “It was pretty evident and everyone saw it. “
Tuesday’s hearing turned tense at times, as Wheeler and GOP committee members repeatedly talked over each other. In keeping with the hotly partisan nature of recent debate over the rules, Democrats rose to Wheeler's defense.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) accused GOP lawmakers of turning the hearing into “a Watergate type of deal — what did you know and when did you know it?”
Lawmakers “have seen no evidence to support” the claims that Wheeler was a pawn to Obama, added Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight panel.
“Instead, the evidence before the committee indicates that the process was thorough, followed the appropriate guidelines and benefitted from a record number of public comments,” he added.
—This story was updated at 5:00 p.m.