Obama Had ‘No Secret Instructions’ on Web Rule, Wheeler Says

The White House gave “no secret instructions” on net neutrality rules during 10 meetings the head of the Federal Communications Commission had with Obama administration officials, the regulator told lawmakers.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during a congressional hearing Tuesday that those meetings involved “numerous” issues in addition to net neutrality, such as policy surrounding spectrum and communications subsidies.

During a fiery session, Republican lawmakers kept questioning whether President Barack Obama influenced the independent agency before it adopted rules last month that prohibit Internet providers such as Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. from blocking or slowing Web traffic.

The White House “strong-armed” Wheeler, said Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican.

Democrats supported Wheeler at the hearing. The FCC’s process leading to the vote was thorough and “followed the appropriate guidelines,” said Representative Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee.

As the hearing concluded House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz said the FCC’s inspector general has begun an investigation of agency procedures leading to the net neutrality vote. Wheeler said he wasn’t aware of the investigation, though would cooperate with it.

Five Hearings

Jay Keithley, an assistant inspector general at the agency, in an e-mail said his office’s policy is “not to comment on the existence or non-existence of an investigation.” Kim Hart, an FCC spokeswoman, referred questions to the office of Inspector General David Hunt.

The inspector general reviews programs and operations, and management is coordinated with the chairman’s office, according to the office’s website.

Tuesday’s hearing is one of five on the FCC that Republicans in Congress have scheduled over the next two weeks. Republican leaders say they want to write a bill that would replace what the agency just passed and they hope to get Democratic support because the regulations face an almost-certain lawsuit by the phone and cable industry.

House and Senate commerce panels hold hearings on Wednesday and Thursday, and next week House appropriators and the House Judiciary Committee question Wheeler.

The FCC on Feb. 26 voted along party lines to adopt rules that bar Internet service providers led by AT&T Inc. and Comcast from blocking or slowing Web traffic. The agency claimed strong legal authority based on utility-style regulation, a path that critics say opens the door to the government setting prices.

Strongest Rules

Republican lawmakers have said they’re concerned about influence on the FCC, an independent agency, by the president. Obama in November called for the “strongest possible rules,” laying out a tougher path than Wheeler had publicly supported.

Wheeler told the committee that “there were no secret instructions from the White House.”

Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, asked Wheeler about the 10 meetings he had with White House officials and whether the open Internet rules were the subject of those meetings.

“You met with the White House before the rule, but you didn’t meet here,” Chaffetz said.

“You gave me a week’s notice,” Wheeler said.

“That’s what we usually give people,” Chaffetz said.

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