Rancor rises at the FCC

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Partisan warfare has broken out at the once-sleepy Federal Communications Commission, where disputes over Internet subsidies for the poor, robocalls and net neutrality regulations have taken on an increasingly bitter tone.

At an open meeting on Thursday, Republican FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly accused the body’s Democratic majority of trying to force through an expansion of broadband subsidies for low-income Americans before President Obama leaves office.

“It is clear that the majority wants to spend as much as they possibly can without any hint of restraint before a possible change in Administration,” he said.

Though the agency is adversarial by nature — by law, only three out of the five commissioners can come from the same political party — a recent series of controversial items have laid bare the fault lines between some of the commissioners.

O’Rielly also accused unnamed commission leaders of lying to him during a later discussion on a measure to crack down on robocalls and spam texts.

“After 14 months working on this issue, it is clear that this process brought out a new low I have never seen in politics or policy making — which is saying something,” he said. “Along the way, some of us were led to believe that we were working together to find a common resolution. Instead, we were being deceived in order to produce one of the most slanted documents I’ve ever seen.”

I will not be so naive to trust again in certain people in leadership positions at the commission.”

He declined to name the individuals in question at a press conference following the meeting.

People who have worked with the commission say that the tension on the commission's dais follows several months when it has considered contentious orders.

In February, it approved new net neutrality rules that the Republicans disagreed with. And this week, the Republican commissioners decried a move to fine AT&T $100 million for misleading customers about throttling their data plans — the largest proposed fine in the agency’s history.

Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai filed an aggressive dissent to the majority’s decision in the AT&T case. It opened with a quote from Kafka’s The Trial, a book where a man is tried and punished for a crime that is never explained to the reader.

Pai wrote that he dissented “in short, because the justice dispensed here condemns a private actor not only in innocence but also in ignorance.”

He has also turned to outlets with a conservative bent — like The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Caller, and Fox News — to press his case on various issues in the past.

Critics of the current commission blame the acrimony on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and the White House, who they say have politicized the commission.

“I think the collegiality has really been diminished,” said Lawrence J. Spiwak, the president of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies. “And this has been going on I think particularly during Tom Wheeler’s tenure.”

At Thursday’s open meeting, Pai said that he felt he wasn’t always able to negotiate in good faith with members of the commission’s majority. He referenced a tableau from the cartoon series Peanuts, where Lucy pulls away a football from Charlie Brown just as he’s about to kick it.

“I don’t simply say no and take my ball and go home,” Pai said at a press conference after the meeting. “Unfortunately, over the last 18 months or so, it’s increasingly become the case of Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football.”

Pai also claimed that there were more party line votes under Wheeler than previous chairs.

Others say, however, that the partisanship on today’s commission doesn’t fall outside of the scope of normal behavior for a body that has always had contentious debates. They argue that any acrimony under Wheeler doesn’t match the conflict during the tenure of former Chairman Kevin Martin, who saw himself pitted against all four of the other commissioners.

The controversial questions before the commissioners — net neutrality and broadband subsidies among them — haven’t stopped them from striking bipartisan deals on other items.

Wheeler, for instance, sided with Pai and O’Rielly, and opposed his Democratic colleagues, on a key question related to rate regulation for large cable companies.

“I don’t really buy into the argument that this is the worst FCC when it comes collegiality and when it comes to agreement,” said Chris Lewis, the Vice President of Government Affairs for the advocacy group Public Knowledge.

Lewis also noted that debates on the commission can become particularly contentious as the end of an administration nears.

It is less clear what effect any clashes between commissioners will have on policymaking.

“There have been many times over the years where emotions run strong and harsh words are spoken but what really determines the working atmosphere of the commission and the end product are the personalities of the commissioners,” said Robert McDowell, who served as a Republican commissioner from 2006 until 2013.

McDowell said that if commissioners are able, in effect, to move on from their disputes, they can approach new items without letting their previous conflicts influence their decision-making.

Wheeler, for his part, said he hoped that any disputes could be mended through “dialogue.”

“I’m always concerned if there are people that have worries about our interrelationships,” he said of O’Rielly’s comments on the robocalling issue. “I remember sitting on his couch and saying this is where we’re going on robocalls. I’m sorry that he feels that way. I do believe strongly, however, in the healing aspects of dialogue and intend to engage in it.”

O’Rielly seemed open to the idea.

“I’m a good Christian,” he said, “and I will endeavor to forgive whatever circumstance may be before me that I don’t agree with but I think this was just a very interesting process.”