Things went downhill fast at the Federal Communications Commission meeting Thursday. Following a 5-0 vote to modernize how VOIP services get phone numbers, an item that had languished at the FCC for a decade, the commission acted on two items, each with an all-too familiar 3-2 party line vote. Only the meeting on the net neutrality rules in February was as contentious.
The three Democrat and two Republican commissioners split on a proposal to include broadband services in Lifeline, a program that provides subsidies to low-income and disadvantaged Americans for phone service. The commissioners also split 3-2 in favor of adopting changes to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act aimed at cutting down on robo calls and unsolicited text messages. (Commissioner Mike O’Rielly dissented in part and approved in part.)
All five commissioners gave long and passionate speeches during the meeting, which began at 10:30 a.m. but didn’t really end until 2:30 p.m., after both chairman Tom Wheeler and the GOP commissioners held dueling press conferences.
While it’s always been standard practice for the chairman to hold a press conference following the meeting, as dissension in the commission has increased, the GOP commissioners have taken to holding their own conference.
“There’s been an unprecedented number of sharply divided 3-2 votes, more than under the previous five chairs combines,” said commissioner Ajit Pai during the GOP press conference.
Wheeler, who has been taken to the woodshed more than once by the GOP-controlled Congress for big policy decisions like the open Internet rules, was visibly annoyed at the two GOP commissioners’ dissents, especially when it came to the vote on Lifeline.
“It’s a shame. I agree this should be a 5-0 vote. It’s a shame the way it’s become politicized,” Wheeler said. “Both parties agree income inequality is a challenge, so it’s disappointing to see the Lifeline conversation get so partisan. I am befuddled about how this Republican-developed program has suddenly become so partisan.”
The Republican commissioners blamed the Democrats for railroading both items and dismissing input from the minority. “There’s little appetite for compromise,” said commissioner Mike O’Rielly. “They’re [the majority] happy to accommodate you if you agree with them….At what point does the majority become tyranny?” O’Rielly added during the press conference.
On the TCPA changes, O’Rielly was even more critical and said he’d been “misled” during the process leading up to the final item. “After 14 months, it is clear the process brought out a new low I’ve never seen in politics or policy making. This is one of the most slanted documents I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Both 3-2 vote-items start from widely-accepted, bipartisan premises: That low-income and disadvantaged Americans should have access to the tools they need to conduct their everyday lives; and nobody on the planet likes, nor should consumers have to tolerate robocalls and text messages without granting permission.
But the commissioners strongly disagreed about how to go about solving both problems. The rhetoric surrounding positions on both sides, though, seemed to widen the chasm of the partisan divide.
Democrats accused Republicans of refusing to “help students learn, veterans to apply for benefits, and a myriad of other challenges that increasingly can only be met online,” Wheeler said. “Those that dissent on this notice today, are voting against the invitation to cleaning up waste, fraud and abuse [in Lifeline],” he added.
Republicans accused Democrats of shutting them out of the decision-making process.
“It’s become a case of Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football. Typically, we’re told ‘no,’ this is a red line,” Pai said.