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Will Net Neutrality bust the FCC’s budget?

L-R: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai L-R: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai

The GOP continued to chip away at the FCC’s open Internet order Tuesday, using the commission budget as its latest cudgel.

At a House appropriation subcommittee hearing, members heard another round of testimony from the dueling duo of net neutrality: chairman Tom Wheeler and GOP commissioner Ajit Pai. It was the fourth hearing in seven days during which Republicans have put the FCC’s order to reclassify Internet service as a utility under intense questioning.

The FCC is asking Congress for a 21 percent increase in its budget over last year to account for a move of its headquarters, for consolidation of its field offices and to improve its IT infrastructure.

But Republicans aren’t convinced an increase is in order, given the amount of time the FCC devoted to a order that they don’t like instead of spending its budgeted resources on Congressionally-mandated priorities.

“We have kept your funding low for a few years in hopes that limited funding would push you towards prioritizing the most important work of the agency,” said chairman Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.).

Responding to Crenshaw, Wheeler launched into his defense of the net neutrality order. “The Internet is the most powerful and pervasive tool for society. It comes down to do you have rules and do you have a referee….We’ve prioritized correctly,” he said, while admitting the commission had missed mandated report deadlines.

Taking the opening, Pai piled on. “By definition, net neutrality took our eye off the ball of some of the other critical priorities: removing barriers to infrastructure investment, embracing the IP transition, and bringing more spectrum into the commercial marketplace, both licensed and unlicensed. I think the staff spent an inordinate amount of time on net neutrality that could have been focused on those priorities.”

Still carrying the budget stick, Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kans.) asked about how the FCC will deal with cost of litigation “when the big dogs sue” over the net neutrality order.

“We maintain a litigation staff at the agency because no matter what we decide and whatever issue people turn around as they have a right to, and ask the court to review it,” said Wheeler. “The litigation staff is in place and that litigation staff would be used to handle it.”

Pai suggested there would be other costs to the net neutrality order besides litigation.

“There are subsequent rule makings, the FCC order tees up a number of new regulations that will need to be adopted, the adjudication of complaints that might be filed at the commission, as well as any advisory opinions the enforcement is called upon to issue,” Pai said.