At a hearing in front of the House Oversight Committee yesterday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman insisted that he was his own man, running his own independent agency. When he proposed a major regulatory overhaul of broadband Internet service very much in line with what President Obama called for in a November statement, he was acting on his own initiative, not White House directives.
"There were no secret instructions from the White House," Wheeler said, responding to charges that he had altered his net neutrality proposal at the White House's urging.
There were, however, a series of until-now undisclosed meetings between Wheeler and senior White House officials during the run-up to the release of Wheeler's proposal, which after passing an FCC vote last month, reclassified Internet service from a Title I information service to a utility-style Title II telecommunications service.
Republican at the hearing legislators pointed to records showing that Wheeler had met with top White House staffers nine times while the proposal was being crafted. But as The Hill reports, Wheeler responded by claiming that "those meetings never touched on the Web regulations."
Given the prominence of the net neutrality debate, this is extremely difficult to believe, especially given that the White House was reportedly so invested in the issue that it engaged in what The Wall Street Journal described as "an unusual secretive effort" involving dozens of meetings with net neutrality activists, in which the White House acted "like a parallel version of the FCC itself." Net neutrality was by far the biggest issue on the FCC's plate last year, and it was the subject of a major effort inside the White House—and yet when Wheeler met with administration officials, it never came up?
Meanwhile, as CNBC reports, emails between Wheeler and the administration made public by the House Oversight Committee make it clear that "Wheeler gave the White House a front-row seat to the [FCC's internal] deliberations process." So even if you buy Wheeler's claim that the issue never came up during the meetings, it's clear that the FCC Chair kept the White House well-informed.
The White House, in turn, provided heads up to the FCC before President Obama's call for strict net neutrality rules, with Jeff Zients, Obama's Assistant for Economic Policy, going to the FCC for an in-house meeting to give Wheeler advance notice about the announcement.
Sometimes the White House offered more than information—it prodded Wheeler to take action. In one email singled out by CNBC, senior Obama aide John Podesta emailed Wheeler about a New York Times article which hinted that the FCC's net neutrality position might not be aggressive enough.
"Brutal story," Podesta wrote. "Somebody going on the record to push back?"
Wheeler responds via email that he was on it. "Yes. I did with a statement similar to what I emailed you." He had already pushed back.
In some ways I suppose this backs up the point Wheeler tried to make before Congress yesterday. The White House didn't need to give secret instructions; the president made a clear public announcement. Wheeler, the presidential appointee working on a touchy political issue, knew quite well what the White House wanted—and in the end, he worked to make sure that's what happened.