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Face off: Wheeler to run the gauntlet at House, Senate hearings this week

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

At last week’s annual Tech Prom, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler was celebrating the “proudest day of my public policy life,” the day the commission adopted open Internet rules on a party-line vote. This week, the GOP-led Congress will try to take him down a peg.

Wheeler is scheduled to testify before three separate committees, House oversight on Tuesday, and, with his fellow commissioners, Senate commerce on Wednesday, and a House commerce subcommittee on Thursday.

It’s a good bet GOP lawmakers won’t go easy on the FCC chairman and the FCC’s 300-page order to classify Internet service as a utility using a 1934 statute. But, at the same time, they must make it easier for Democrats to support the GOP’s draft bill for ensuring an open Internet.

To reel in Democrats, Republicans might have to tone down the rhetoric – like calling the FCC’s order “the nuclear regulatory option.”

Republican leaders Senate commerce chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and House communications and technology subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) are likely to position a Congressional solution as the way to avoid the inevitable protracted court fight over the FCC order. Even Wheeler knows “the big dogs are going to sue.”

“Our six-page draft legislation could prevent abuses and promote robust Internet investment – all without the overreach included in the FCC’s order,” said House commerce chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Thune and Walden in a joint statement.

Even before the FCC’s Feb. 26 vote, Republicans in Congress were critical of an open Internet order that relies on a portion of a 1934 telephone statute everyone now knows as Title II. But it was chum in the water when President Obama in November publicly urged the FCC to “answer the call of almost 4 million public comments” to “implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”

For the GOP, the connection between Obama and Wheeler, who bundled money for Obama’s reelection campaign, cast doubt on the independent decision-making of the FCC. When the Wall Street Journal reported that a secret effort in the White House acted like a parallel version of the FCC itself, Republican suspicions were seemingly confirmed.

House oversight chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) immediately opened up an investigation into whether the White House exerted undo pressure on Wheeler. In early February, Chaffetz fired off a letter to Wheeler requesting all communications between the agency and the White House. He originally called for a hearing with Wheeler the day before the historic FCC vote, but Wheeler declined and Chaffetz postponed the hearing. On Tuesday, Chaffetz will get his chance.

Next week won’t be the end of Wheeler’s time before Congress. The following week Wheeler is prepared to appear before House judiciary committee and perhaps one additional committee.

By then, Wheeler will have had a lot of practice.