The White House Gets Involved in the FCC, An Independent Agency, Yet Again

Will Rinehart
Apr 21, 2016 · 3 min read
Source: Flickr user Frank Camp

In an unprecedented move, the Obama Administration has chimed in on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy, putting its weight behind newly proposed set top box rules. Regardless what you might think about the FCC’s set top box proposal, and there has been a vigorous debate, the conversation has been effectively silenced in a way that isn’t helpful to rational policymaking. Much like the push for Title II regulation, the administration has again pushed the agency even further down a path of unnecessary partisanship and given cover to FCC Chairman Wheeler to push his agenda.

Because of the technical nature of its regulatory subject matter, the FCC was designed to insulate it from the political whims of the executive, but also to ensure consensus driven policy. Especially under Chairman Wheeler, the FCC’s long standing congeniality has changed dramatically, and the White House has done little to ensure bipartisanship. There is a long history here, and for more of the details of it, check out my writeup over at the American Action Forum. But one story highlights the problems. It focuses on recent reforms to Lifeline, the communication subsidy program for low income Americans.

As AAF has explained, the program needs five major reforms. Lifeline’s purpose needs to be clearly defined so that metrics can be developed; the budget needs to be capped; eligibility requirements need simplification; the current contribution method needs to be debated since it might actually harm the poorest families; and an economically rigorous evaluation program needs to be adopted.

In a rare moment of agreement, a deal was struck across party lines that would have likely gone a long way to achieve those goals and would have likely been far better for both taxpayers and Lifeline users. Upon learning of this deal, Chairman Wheeler swooped in with political pressure and the press, and eventually rammed through his own proposal, which added $1.15 billion to the budget of this unaudited program, on a 3–2 party line vote. Just days after this, the president made a show of things by applauding the move and releasing a report on broadband adoption. Given how quickly all of this happened and the coordination, it is hardly surprising that a Senate report found it “concerning that an independent agency like the FCC could be so unduly influenced by the White House, particularly on an issue that touches the lives of so many Americans and has such a significant impact on a critical sector of the United States economy.” For all of the details, I’d highly suggest this TechFreedom podcast with Matthew Berry, Chief of Staff for FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai.

For a Commission that has long been bipartisan, recent actions from the White House should make one cringe. The top down approach that the White House has helped to create erodes the FCC’s independent expert status. Sadly, both the Obama Administration and Chairman Wheeler have changed the tenor at one of the last remaining consensus driven institutions in Washington. That is the kind of change I really don’t want to see.

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Will Rinehart

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Senior Research Fellow | Center for Growth and Opportunity | @WillRinehart

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