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Chaffetz to press Wheeler on emails and WH influence

Updated with Wheeler testimony (8:57pm)

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah)

House oversight chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) will have some hard questions for FCC chairman Tom Wheeler at today’s hearing about the process that led up to the FCC’s recent open Internet order and the White House’s role in it.

For several weeks leading up to the FCC’s 3-2 party line vote, the details of the 300-page order remained hidden from the public despite calls for its release from the GOP and others.

“In reality, the current process making changes to Internet rules is far less transparent than what occurred with the equally controversial media ownership changes in 2007,” Chaffetz will say in his opening remarks Tuesday morning, according to excerpts shared with Katy on the Hill. “Further, it appears the FCC is concealing certain communications from the public with no legal basis,” Chaffetz will say.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler will testify that the process for the net neutrality order was “one of the most open and transparent in commission history….the roadmap we followed to develop this order was a process that Congress established close to 70 years ago in the Administrative Procedure Act.”

At Chaffetz’s request, the FCC turned over to the committee some 1600 pages of unredacted emails that the FCC had previously provided to other organizations through FOIA requests, but in a highly redacted form.

“Today we will compare these communications to understand what legal justification Mr. Wheeler’s agency used to prevent this information from becoming public,” Chaffetz plans to say.

Chaffetz will also examine whether or not President Obama and the White House exerted undue pressure on the commission as he publicly urged in November that the FCC adopt “the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”

“You have asked whether there were secret instructions from the White House,” Wheeler will testify. “Again, I repeat the answer is no. Now, the question becomes whether the President’s announcement on November 10 had an impact on the Open Internet debate, including at the FCC. Of course it did.”

FCC process reform is an issue that cuts across committees. For several Congresses, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the commerce subcommittee on communications and technology has tried to advance FCC process reform legislation that would require the FCC to release an order before they vote on it so that the public could comment on the specific details.

Even though the GOP controls both chambers, efforts to rein in the FCC has little support from the other side of the aisle and the White House.