A few months after Trump’s inauguration, an attorney appointed by the president to a top post at the Justice Department produced a memo in which he outlined the administration’s views on congressional oversight. The memo stated simply that, because Democrats were in the minority, they had no legal authority to conduct oversight of, or demand documents from, agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—at least, not without the express consent of their Republican counterparts.
The FCC’s chairman, Ajit Pai, seemed to take this advice to heart. For the administration’s first two years, he rarely responded to requests for information from Democratic lawmakers. Pai ignored, for example, inquiries over why his agency fed Congress misinformation about fictitious cyberattacks first reported by Gizmodo. Accordingly, several Democrats admonished Pai over what they called a “lack of candor,” accusing him publicly of intentionally stifling efforts to shed light on his agency’s work. Republicans, meantime, backtracked on a promise they’d made to hold quarterly oversight hearings.
Nothing good, as they say, lasts forever.
In a letter to Pai on Monday, a pair of House Democrats, who now helm a committee and subcommittee charged with overseeing the FCC’s work, made clear that any avoidance or obfuscation would no longer stand. “Under your leadership, the FCC has failed repeatedly to act in the public interest and placed the interest of corporations over consumers,” the letter reads.
A request for information and documents about the FCC’s current workload, the letter was signed by the new Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr., and Rep. Mike Doyle, head of the Communications and Technology subcommittee. In a nod to the free rein Pai has enjoyed under the Republican-controlled Congress, the letter stated that Energy and Commerce Democrats were prepared to “reassume” their “traditional role of oversight” to ensure the FCC was “acting in the best interest of the public.”
The lawmakers are also seeking information about the work of the FCC’s bureaus and offices, and its “interactions with the public through its handling of consumer complaints and Freedom of Information Act requests.”
The letter continues: “Not only have you have failed on numerous occasions to provide Democratic members of this Committee with responses to their inquiries, you have also repeatedly denied or delayed responding to legitimate information requests from the public about agency operations.” It further accuses Pai of having denied the public “a full and fair understanding of how the FCC under your leadership has arrived at public policy decisions that impact Americans every day in communities across the country.”
In a video Monday, Doyle announced the first hearing before the subcommittee will address the effects of the FCC’s net neutrality repeal, which he called “a disaster for consumers.”
The hearing will take place Thursday, Feb. 7, at 11am. The witness list includes former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, now of the Brookings Institution; Jessica Gonzales, senior counsel at Free Press; Mozilla Chief Operating Officer Denelle Dixon; and Michael Powell, president and CEO of the Internet & Television Association, which represents a large swath of the telecom industry.
“This hearing will be an important opportunity to hear what the repeal of net neutrality means for the American people,” said Doyle, “and what has happened since the repeal went into effect.”