House Investigates Obama's Role in FCC's Net Neutrality Decision

The probe could become a headache for the FCC as it pushes ahead with new Internet regulations.

President Obama shakes hands with Tom Wheeler, his nominee for the Federal Communications Commission, on May 1, 2013. (National Journal)

The House Oversight Committee has opened an investigation into whether the White House improperly influenced the Federal Communications Commission's consideration of net neutrality regulations.

In a letter to FCC Tom Wheeler on Friday, House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, demanded that the agency turn over all communications between the White House and the FCC on net neutrality, any draft regulations, and internal FCC documents on the views of agency staff on the issue. He also demanded that the FCC preserve broad categories of other documents that might become relevant to the investigation.

Chaffetz told the agency to provide the initial documents and to arrange a briefing for his staff no later than Feb. 20, just six days before the commission is set to vote on the new regulations.

An FCC spokesman confirmed the agency is reviewing the letter but declined to comment. A White House spokesman did not respond to a request to comment.

Republicans have complained that by outlining his own net neutrality proposal last November, President Obama put inappropriate pressure on an independent agency. Unlike executive branch agencies, independent commissions like the FCC are not bound to follow the president's directions.

"The White House needs to get its hands off the FCC," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said Thursday.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, expressed dismay on Wednesday that the FCC was succumbing "to the bully tactics of political activists and the president himself."

Chaffetz cited a Wall Street Journal story from this week that detailed how the White House decided to intervene in the debate.

In November, Obama urged the FCC to bar Internet providers from blocking websites, intentionally slowing down traffic, or creating "fast lanes" for websites that pay more.

He also asked the FCC to declare the Internet a "telecommunications service" under Title II of the Communications Act, a move that many net neutrality advocates say is necessary to enact rules that can hold up in court. The classification would grant the FCC broad powers to regulate the practices of Internet service providers. This week, Wheeler announced that he plans to enact the president's plan.

FCC officials insist Wheeler was already considering possible proposals that involved Title II before the president's statement.

When Obama weighed in on the issue, the White House emphasized that it respected the FCC's independence and that the ultimate decision would be up to the five commissioners. The president was only providing his views, as millions of people did in the FCC's comment process, the White House said.

The House's investigation is an unwelcome headache for the FCC as it moves ahead with the new rules. But it probably won't be the only way that Republicans on Capitol Hill will try to put their own pressure on the FCC. The Commerce Committees in both chambers are likely to demand that Wheeler testify in oversight hearings, and lawmakers may consider cutting the agency's budget.