Back in June, some sixty House Republicans led by Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn sent an open letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler expressing their “deep concern” with his support for community networks. They took issue with comments he made at a House Energy and Commerce hearing in May, indicating his willingness to preempt incumbent-sponsored anticompetitive state laws that handicap or outright ban municipal networks.
In the the views of Rep. Blackburn and her allies, this “sets a dangerous precedent and violates state sovereignty in a manner that warrants deeper examination.” They demanded answers from Chairman Wheeler on a set of eight questions so leading that they would make even the most partisan pollster blush. They featured many of the same “states’ rights,” “unelected federal bureaucrat,” and “unconstitutional authority” talking points used later in the floor debate over Blackburn’s anti-muni amendment, softened up and rephrased just a bit for polite company.
In late July, Chairman Wheeler offered a formal written response. He opened with a diplomatically worded overview of the U.S. broadband sector, before launching into the heart of the matter:
“...Many states have enacted laws that place a range of restrictions on communities’ ability to make their own decisions about their own future. There is reason to believe that these laws have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades of bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition. I respect the important role of state governments in our federal system, but I also know that state laws which directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances.”
While the legal debate is all about the extent of federal authority, Chairman Wheeler correctly identifies the real policy issue: "communities' ability to make their own decisions about their own future." Preemption [meaning removing state preemption] is about enabling choice, not forcing any particular option on a local community. Conversely, "states' rights" is used by Rep. Blackburn and her allies as a blanket permission to dictate to every county, township, and municipality in a given state that they must take service from monopolistic incumbents or go without broadband entirely.
Chairman Wheeler gamely answered each of the questions in Blackburn’s letter, despite the fact that some were little more than veiled threats:
[Blackburn et. al:] “1. If the courts struck down the FCC’s ploy to override state laws restricting municipal broadband do you believe that such a decision would weaken the credibility of the FCC?”
[Wheeler:] The commission gives careful consideration to all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues before making decisions…As you know, final Commission decisions are typically subject to judicial review, but I do not believe that is a reason to shy away from making important decisions.
Blackburn: Don't even think about it, we will sue you.
Wheeler: Fine by me.
Several of the other questions were variations on the theme of “How dare you!”:
[Blackburn et. al:] “2. Why does the FCC believe state governors and state legislators should not have a say over how to govern the political subdivisions of their state even though that is what they are elected to do by voters?”
[Blackburn et. al] “7. Did you ever ask Congress for the authority to override states’ rights with respect to municipal broadband?”
In defending the legal soundness of preemption, Chairman Wheeler quoted both the language of Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act as well as several favorable circuit court decisions that “specifically characterized preemption of state laws restricting municipal broadband as a ‘paradigmatic’ example of the authority given by Congress to the FCC under Section 706.”
Perhaps the best encapsulation of the entire tense Blackburn-Wheeler correspondence is given in the following exchange:
[Blackburn et. al:] “6. How does the FCC believe Section 706 authority trumps the states’ rights in the Constitution?”
[Wheeler:] As explained above, Section 706 establishes a strong federal policy of ensuring that broadband is available to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. When state laws come into direct conflict with critically important federal law and policy, it is a long-standing principle of Constitutional law that state laws can be subject to federal preemption in appropriate cases. I do not view federal preemption as a matter to be undertaken lightly. Such action must be premised on careful consideration of all relevant issues. As noted above, in any proceeding involving these issues, the Commission will consider all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues presented to determine the appropriate course of action.
This is the correspondence in a nutshell: Blackburn and her allies are hopping mad about the prospect of their big telecom donors having to compete with municipal networks or private companies partnered with municipal networks, and Chairman Wheeler is striking a measured, non-provocative tone while sticking to his guns on the need to restore local authority to increase competition. The qualifying phrase “the Commission will consider all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues presented” appears, by my count, eight times in Wheeler's four page letter.
The Blackburn-Wheeler exchange stands in contrast to the response letter sent by Wheeler to Pennsylvania Democrat Representative Mike Doyle, which contains much of the same language and phrases but strikes a decidedly different tone. Chairman Wheeler apparently had no objections to Rep. Doyle’s pro-municipal network letter, and was in fact “heartened by [his] support for community broadband.”
While the FCC rulemaking process sometimes seems like a black box, there are many political aspects to its decisions that extend into the public arena. Reading the tea leaves on exchanges like these between Congress and the FCC does not necessarily offer definitive answers, but it does appear to indicate that Chairman Wheeler is leaning in the right direction and may be willing to take the inevitable heat that a decision in favor of restoring local authority would bring.