Republicans Investigate White House Involvement In Net Neutrality Rules

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The Hill reports on the House Oversight Committee and Senate Governmental Affairs Committee demanding correspondence between the nominally independent Federal Communications Commission and various organs of the Obama Administration, in an effort to determine whether the White House exerted improper pressure on the FCC to engineer the proposed “Net Neutrality” takeover of the Internet:

House and Senate committees sent letters this month requesting documents, communications and visitors logs from the independent agency to sniff out whether the White House exerted improper influence on the rulemaking process.

During an interview, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) did not rule out holding hearings or calling White House officials to testify before his panel, if that is where the investigation leads.

“I think there’s enough smoke here that it’s really worth looking at,” he told The Hill. “And we’ll let the facts dictate where we go. But we are going to look at it with a skeptical eye and see what the documents demonstrate.”

At another point, he said if the FCC provides documents that are “shallow and incomplete, we will ratchet it up in a hurry.”

Republicans have been relentless in their accusations that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler caved to pressure from the White House to reclassify broadband Internet similar to traditional telephones. The move is part of an effort to enforce rules barring Internet service providers from prioritizing any bit of Internet traffic above another.

Republicans have also accused President Obama of bullying the independent agency by releasing a YouTube video pushing the FCC to take up reclassification. Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai has even taken to referring to the regulations as “Obama’s plan.”

However, the letters sent this month by the House Oversight Committee and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee are looking for evidence that the pressure hit a level that was “inappropriate” or “undue.”

Chaffetz is not concerned with Obama’s public recommendations. He wants to know if there were direct staff-level discussions between the administration and the FCC that have not been disclosed. Even direct pressure from a White House surrogate could cross the boundary, he said.

“And that may have gone via another person or two,” he said. “But if it had the intention of unduly influencing what is supposed to be an independent agency, I have a problem with that.”

I would recommend Rep. Chaffetz begin polishing his information-extracting ratchets, because we all know how The Most Transparent Administration In History loves to drag out document requests from both Congress and the public, until its media allies can dismiss each scandal as “old news” of concern only to Obama-hating obsessives. The FCC is already delaying its response to Chaffetz’ request, and wouldn’t give The Hill a comment on the matter, either.

In this case, once Obama’s dream of tight-fisted government control over the Internet is realized, those improper connections will become “old news” very quickly, so this particular stone wall won’t have to be terribly high. Net Neutrality advocates didn’t need much prodding to show their true colors (my bold):

Advocates of the strong rules, like Public Knowledge, disagree that there is any appearance of impropriety.

“In this case there is really not evidence of wrongdoing here, but there are attempts to kind of draw attention to it and say maybe if you repeat the scandal enough, one will generate out of thin air,” said Michael Weinberg, a vice president of the group.

Weinberg was clarifying his colleague Harold Feld’s previous comparison of the net neutrality investigation to those of Benghazi. Chaffetz called the comparison “offensive” and “barely worthy of comment.”

Public Knowledge released a fact sheet saying presidents are free to weigh in on the issues, make public statements and have private conversations with the commission just like other members of the public.

The lobbying would only become illegal, the group said, if the administration did not file notices of the meetings in the public record, officially know as “ex parte” notices that are published in the FCC’s database.

Just a nothingburger like the Benghazi investigation, eh? At least Net Neutrality isn’t likely to lead to the death of any American ambassadors.

Later in the article, FCC chairman Wheeler’s “evolution” on Internet regulation is compared to Obama’s “evolution” on gay marriage… in a supportive comment, made right before the revelation that Obama lied about his support for gay marriage to get elected.

As we’ve seen through so many Obama scandals, demonstrating improper collusion with supposedly independent agencies is difficult, and congressional critics of Net Neutrality seem well aware of the hurdles they face. Presidents and their aides have enormous power to influence supposedly “independent” government agencies without leaving any smoking-gun evidence; the latest trove of long-hidden Lois Lerner emails is still being combed through, but as it stands, all it took to unleash the former IRS official on Obama’s political enemies was some public bellyaching about the Tea Party menace from Obama and top Democrats.

In this case, Obama’s desire for government control of the Internet was obvious to politically and ideologically sympathetic FCC commissioners, without any Tony Soprano-style backroom meetings. Wheeler was supposedly also swayed by public comments from the sizable number of people who think Net Neutrality will give them “free” high-speed Internet, the same way people used to think ObamaCare would deliver “free” health insurance, or look forward to watching government regulators subdue the cable companies – some of which brought this whole mess on themselves by developing a reputation for arrogance. They grievously underestimated the ability of rapacious Big Government to conjure public anxiety about the “problems” it needs to sell the “solutions” it wants.

However this investigation into improper White House influence plays out, the Wall Street Journal notes that a bigger obstacle to the Net Neutrality crusade may come from transparency legislation:

Republicans are trying again this year to boost transparency at the FCC. Sen. Dean Heller (R., Nev.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, is pushing anew for legislation that would require the FCC to publish rule proposals for at least 21 days before a vote and that would empower any of the commissioners to ask for a vote on orders issued by an FCC division known as the media bureau.

But the legislation also revives controversial elements that could hamstring the agency. It would require the telecommunications regulator to show that the benefits of regulation outweigh the costs as well as identify a market failure before adopting economically significant rules.

Heaven forbid people should get a look at the top-secret plan to regulate the Internet, or that regulators should be required to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of the plan (hopefully with methodology more rigorous than the ObamaCare cost estimates Jonathan Gruber was so happy about perverting!), or even be required to demonstrate that a real problem exists before the bureaucracy has a field day solving it.