"The president did not do the institution any favors by doing that," McDowell said. "It pulls the mask of independence off of the agency."
Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai, who has drawn increasing media attention as the voice fighting Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler on the net-neutrality action, wasted no time Thursday tying the move to Obama.
"The Commission's decision to adopt President Obama's plan marks a monumental shift toward government control of the Internet," Pai warned. "It gives the FCC the power to micromanage virtually every aspect of how the Internet works. It's an overreach that will let a Washington bureaucracy, and not the American people, decide the future of the online world."
Earlier this month, Pai tweeted a picture of himself holding a 332-page draft of the net-neutrality order (in front of a framed portrait of Obama), and held his own press conference in the FCC's meeting room, where he claimed that Wheeler was misleading the American people about the plan's details.
Whether the bad blood will spill over into other issues remains to be seen. The FCC, created about 80 years ago to be an independent and expert agency for regulating the communications industries, has numerous significant issues to tackle in the months and years ahead. The agency must hold a complex multibillion-dollar airwave auction that will restructure both the TV and cellular industries, and oversee the transition of phone networks to digital technology. The commission must also rule on Comcast's bid to buy Time Warner Cable and AT&T's planned purchase of DirecTV.
According to Harold Feld, the senior vice president of Public Knowledge and a net-neutrality advocate, the real culprit behind the nastier tone of FCC debates is not Obama, but Ajit Pai.
"Pai has been a man of hyperbolic hysterics as a way of driving the agenda since he got there," Feld said, pointing to Pai's advocacy against net neutrality and his efforts last year to sound the alarm about an FCC study on consumers' information needs. Pai called the study, which would have asked reporters questions about their jobs, a "threat to the First Amendment." Wheeler eventually pulled the study in the face of a conservative backlash.
"When you have a bully, it's not like you have a problem with the school yard—you have a bully," Feld said.
For their part, the FCC commissioners don't think the net-neutrality fight will prevent them from working together on other issues.
Wheeler acknowledged Thursday that his Republican colleagues have "strongly held beliefs," but he insisted that he expects future negotiations will continue to be a "collegial process." He noted that many FCC actions are still made on a unanimous basis.
"I don't see the well as being poisoned," Pai said. "I hope the chairman doesn't bear me any ill will from one item to the next. Whatever is on tap next, we're going to approach it with an open mind."