The head of the Federal Communications Commission denied Tuesday that he caved to pressure from President Obama on net neutrality.
"There were no secret instructions from the White House," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler insisted during a House Oversight Committee hearing. "I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the president's recommendation."
Instead, he treated the president's plan for strong net-neutrality regulations with the same respect that he treated suggestions from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, the FCC chief said.
During Tuesday's hearing, House Republicans accused Wheeler of a variety of improprieties in crafting the agency's net-neutrality rules, which bar Internet providers from blocking online content, slowing down traffic, or creating special "fast lanes" for sites that pay more.
They questioned whether Obama hijacked the role of the independent agency by outlining a net-neutrality plan in November that would classify Internet service in the same legal category as telephones. Wheeler had initially favored a different approach, but he ultimately backed the same legal authority as Obama. The commission enacted the new rules last month.
Wheeler acknowledged that Obama's statement put "winds in the sails" of the push for strong rules, but he said his thinking was also influenced by the millions of comments from the public and the Democratic members of Congress who backed similar approaches.
Wheeler confirmed that he met with White House staff 10 times before the decision but said many of those meetings focused on other issues. The only meeting in which a White House official outlined a specific net-neutrality plan was disclosed in a public filing, Wheeler said.
The FCC's inspector general has also opened an investigation into the FCC's process for considering net neutrality rules, Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, announced.
The congressional Republicans also hammered Wheeler for keeping the language of the rules secret until after the commission approved them and for refusing to appear before the committee before the vote. "We find that wholly unacceptable," Chaffetz said.
Wheeler argued that the agency has always kept draft rules secret to allow the commissioners to confidentially discuss and edit them. The Republicans argued that the public had a right to see the net-neutrality draft before the vote, and pointed out that Wheeler had the power to release it if he wanted to.
Chaffetz said Congress should change the law to force the FCC to release draft rules at least 30 days before a final vote.
The Republicans also accused the FCC of inappropriately redacting information from documents in response to Freedom of Information requests from the public. For example, the FCC had redacted one email in which Wheeler appeared to suggest that the White House was coordinating with activists who protested outside his house the morning of Obama's statement.
"The lack of transparency surrounding the open-Internet rulemaking process leaves us with a lot of questions," Chaffetz said.
The Democratic members of the committee accused the Republicans of chasing fake scandals instead of addressing the substance of the new regulations. "It's very hard to make the case against net neutrality, and these members don't want to go home and make that case," Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democrat from Washington, D.C., said. "So they're trying to make a case, for example, against the opinion of the president of the United States on net neutrality."
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat, pointed to communications between the Republican members of the FCC and industry lobbyists. "If Republicans want to accuse the president of undue influence in this process ... they can't just conveniently ignore similar actions on the part of the Republican side," he said.
The hearing is just the first leg of a marathon for the FCC chief that will continue tomorrow in the Senate Commerce Committee, Thursday in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and next week in the House Judiciary and Appropriations committees.