Imagine a Federal agency calling for public input on an important issue while one of its top officials simultaneously tells corporations at a private event how they can rig the process for their own benefit.
That’s what’s going on at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this month. The agency, evidently not content with its February decision to impose 1934 regulation on America’s broadband Internet, has opened an investigation into business broadband services called special access.
The FCC calls its action “a comprehensive evaluation of the relevant data,” which certainly sounds scholarly and evenhanded.
But immediately after the announcement, Gigi Sohn, counselor to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, went before a trade group pushing for more regulation and offering a different view. According to an article in Light Reading, Sohn advised the group about the benefits of tactics that aren’t normally a part of a “comprehensive evaluation” of data. Specifically, Ms. Sohn encouraged the attending companies to picket government officials at home and government buildings, as part of a strategy to get the increased media attention for the regulation they want.
Actions like these, she said, would help drive TV coverage, adding, “If these issues are portrayed as a battle of the really large, you are not going to win the debate.”
One of the worst tendencies in Washington is to promise one thing while doing something else. If FCC Chairman Wheeler wants to salvage any credibility for his special access review, he needs to address his top aide’s remarks directly. A few questions come to mind:
- Was Ms. Sohn, whom the Chairman personally hired in 2013, speaking for him?
- Are actions such as picketing officials’ homes and federal buildings part of the Commission’s “comprehensive evaluation” of special access broadband service?
- Could Chairman Wheeler provide examples of his staff offering similar advice to groups with a different view of special access regulation?
- If not, doesn’t this suggest that the Commission has already made the decision to regulate and its supposed fair investigation announced last week is just a sham?
These days, a common complaint among Democrats is that the public lacks trust in the Federal government. That’s true – Americans are remarkably cynical about Federal actions, with a Pew survey this April reporting that just 23% said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing at least most of the time.
Chairman Wheeler and his FCC colleagues should acknowledge that public cynicism is fed when a federal agency promises a dispassionate investigation and then has a senior staff member act behind the scenes like a lobbyist for one side.
Communications investment is highly capital-intensive ($78 billion in 2014). Hundreds of thousands of jobs (and tens of thousands of union jobs) depend on this investment. These jobs and investment are far too important to be left to politically-motivated meddling. The American public deserves better.
(This piece was published in Forbes online)