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Congress Sends Pro-Security Aviation Bill to the President’s Desk

The bill will provide important safety, security, and time-sensitive improvements for the U.S. aviation system and awaits the president’s signature before the Federal Aviation Administration’s reauthorization deadline on Friday.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson Opening Statement

Good afternoon, and thank you, Senator Cruz, for calling this hearing. I greatly appreciate our coming together to work toward a bill that will keep NASA moving forward in an exciting and productive manner.  

It’s notable that July 20th, one week from today, marks the 40th anniversary of the first landing on Mars by NASA’s Viking 1. And the legacy of that mission, and subsequent missions to the Red Planet, is that we now know that Mars was once warm and wet and may very well have supported life. There’s even evidence of flowing water at the surface of Mars today.

In 2010, we passed a bipartisan NASA Authorization Act calling on the agency to explore beyond the Earth’s orbit, with the long term goal of a human mission to Mars.

I recently visited Stennis Space Center and the Michoud Assembly Facility on the Gulf Coast, as well as the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, and I can tell that progress toward that goal is real. We also have Orion at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida being prepared for its first journey beyond the moon. We are going to Mars, and the rockets and engines and spacecraft that are the building blocks of that mission are being assembled and tested right now! 

And if all continues to go well, by the end of next year, we will once again have American astronauts launching to space from Florida soil on American rockets, thanks to the partnerships NASA has forged with SpaceX and Boeing.

It is truly an exciting time for our space program.

This committee has always worked in a non-partisan manner, and I am pleased to be a part of continuing that tradition in this Congress as we work toward advancing and passing a NASA reauthorization.

Thank you all for being here, and I look forward to your testimony.

GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth Connects Silicon Valley StartUps to the Federal Cybersecurity Conversation in GSA’s Cyber Industry Day

GSA news releases - Wed, 07/13/2016 - 12:00am
GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth Connects Silicon Valley StartUps to the Federal Cybersecurity Conversation in GSA’s Cyber Industry Day

GSA to host Industry Day for government shared services

GSA news releases - Wed, 07/13/2016 - 12:00am
Providing a great opportunity for government and industry to share best practices

Foxx Statement: All Education Is Career Education

Education & the Workforce Committee - Wed, 07/13/2016 - 12:00am
For far too long, there has been a discrepancy in what students are learning in the classroom and what employers say they need in the workplace. The passage of the bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014 was an important step for the millions of Americans who are looking for work and for the employers who have job opportunities that remain unfilled due to the “skills gap.” However, great jobs are still going unfilled, Americans are still missing out on rewarding careers, and many businesses are still suffering.

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act has provided federal support to state and local career and technical education programs for more than 30 years. H.R. 5587, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, updates the law to reflect today’s economic needs and the challenges that students and workers currently face.

In particular, I’m pleased that the bill streamlines the number of performance measures for postsecondary programs and aligns them with the performance measures in WIOA, retaining that law’s precedent-setting accountability standards that let taxpayers and lawmakers see clearly which programs work—and which programs don’t.

This bipartisan bill goes a long way toward ensuring that individuals who pursue a technical education have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

However, I believe it’s time we acknowledge that all education is career education and stop dividing the path to a high school degree into two tracks.

Students pursue education to develop the necessary skills to find a job, preferably a career, in a chosen field. It’s the same objective whether the student is pursuing a medical degree at an Ivy League university or taking automotive performance courses at the local community college.

Unfortunately, there is an unnecessary stigma attached to career and technical education. It’s too often referred to as the “other” track, with the incorrect implication that it’s the path individuals take if they won’t be able to handle the rigors of college. In reality, students who pursue CTE complete a diverse curriculum where they learn important skills for succeeding in the workplace, such as problem-solving, research, time management, and critical thinking. They are more engaged, perform better and graduate at higher rates than their college-bound counterparts. We should be celebrating that success and studying how we translate it across the board.

But as long as we have two educational tracks, we have a problem in the way people perceive those who choose career and technical education. We need to shift our perspective away from the idea that every student must attend an expansive and expensive four-year program to succeed in the workforce. Educational success is about more than just a degree. It’s about quantifiable skills that employers need in their employees.

 

At Oral Argument, Ninth Circuit Appears Poised to Preempt Hawaii GMO Ordinances

WLF Legal Pulse - Tue, 07/12/2016 - 4:46pm
On June 15, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments in three related bids to invalidate separate Hawaiian county ordinances.  The counties of Maui and Hawaii ban the cultivation of genetically engineered crops or plants, while Kauai County requires that cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) be annually disclosed […]
Categories: Latest News

Ready for Liftoff: The Importance of Small Businesses in the NASA Supply Chain

House Small Business Committee News - Tue, 07/12/2016 - 2:00pm
Chairman Carlos Curbelo has scheduled a hearing of the Committee on Small Business Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade titled, “Ready for Liftoff:  The Importance of Small Businesses in the NASA Supply Chain.” The hearing will begin at 11:00 A.M. on Tuesday, July 12, 2016 in Room 2360 in the Rayburn House Office Building.

Attachments
1. Hearing Notice
2. Witness List

Witness List 

Mr. Chris Carberry
CEOand Co-Founder
Explore Mars, Inc.
Beverly, MA
Testimony

George Davis, Ph.D.
President and Founder
Emergent Space Technologies
Greenbelt, MD
Testimony

Ms. Carol Craig
President and CEO
Craig Technologies
Cape Canaveral, FL
Testimony

Mr. Stephen Gorevan
Chairman
Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY
Testimony

How Our Aviation Bill Strengthens Security

U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, spoke on the Senate floor about how the bipartisan aviation legislation under consideration in the Senate this week strengthens security.

Ranking Member Bill Nelson Opening Statement

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing.

In our constantly connected world, where everything from shopping to health research to job applications take place online, companies are collecting unprecedented amounts of personal information and creating ever more sophisticated individualized profiles of consumers usually without their knowledge.   

As a result, the question about how best to protect consumer privacy and give consumers more power over the collection and use of their personal information has never been more important.

My track record in support of strong consumer privacy protections is clear.

Along with Senator Blumenthal, I introduced legislation this Congress to establish national data security and breach notification standards and provide additional authority to enforce these new standards.

I also have publicly called on the FCC to investigate specific practices or products that threaten consumer privacy.  I have called on CEOs of communications companies to provide assurances that they are protecting consumer privacy.

We all share the same goal – how best to protect consumer online privacy.

But it strikes me in looking at the FCC’s proposed privacy rules that both sides of the debate come at these questions with preconceived notions about how best to achieve this goal.

On one side, we are told that the FCC should not be adopting any rules for broadband providers because we are not also applying those same rules to every online player. 

On the other side, we are told that the FCC should adopt the most stringent rules possible in order to prohibit broadband provides from using any consumer data. 

For me, the question is ultimately how to preserve the benefits of online commerce but in a way that takes into account consumers’ right to know about, and when appropriate, control the collection and use of their personal information.

Putting aside claims of regulatory overreach or power grabs, let’s be clear:  the FCC IS the expert agency for regulating communications networks, including broadband networks. 

It is an expert oversight agency with flexible, forward-looking authority to protect consumers.  In fact, I have pushed the FCC over the past several years to use that authority to protect privacy. 

We need regulators who are not afraid to use their authority when necessary – including to protect consumer privacy – but also know when to exercise that authority with humility.

This is a difficult balance, but that does not mean that an agency should defer or otherwise be reluctant to do what it believes is best to protect consumers.

The FCC is still in the middle of a rulemaking to sort all of this out.  I look forward to hearing about the FCC’s proposals and alternative approaches, but make no doubt, at the end of the day, I’m going to side with consumers and whichever approach that I think best protects the privacy of broadband subscribers.

Intermodal and Interdependent: The FAST Act, the Economy, and Our Nation’s Transportation System

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security, will convene a subcommittee hearing titled “Intermodal and Interdependent: The FAST Act, the Economy, and Our Nation’s Transportation System” on Tuesday, July 12, 2016, at 2:30 p.m.
 
The hearing will explore stakeholder perspectives on implementation of the recently-enacted FAST Act and its role in improving our nation’s infrastructure, increasing safety, and enhancing economic growth. The hearing will also cover emerging economic and policy opportunities and challenges for transportation providers, shippers, planners, and state officials.

Witnesses:
 
•    Mr. Patrick J. Ottensmeyer, Chief Executive Officer, Kansas City Southern Railway Company
•    Major Jay Thompson, Arkansas Highway Police; President, Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance
•    Mr. David Eggermann, Supply Chain Manager, BASF
•    Mr. Stephen J. Gardner, Executive Vice President and Chief of NEC Business Development, Amtrak

Hearing Details:
 
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
2:30 p.m. ET
Subcommittee Hearing
Senate Russell Building 253
 
Witness testimony, opening statements, and a livestream will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.

Small Biz is Out of This World

House Small Business Committee News - Tue, 07/12/2016 - 12:00am

Curbelo Hearing Spotlights Importance of Small Companies to NASA

WASHINGTON – Today small business owners told a key Congressional subcommittee that their companies and others like them play a vital role in meeting the needs of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).Witnesses and lawmakers also discussed ways to strengthen and improve the critical partnership between small companies and NASA as the agency prepares to celebrate its 58th anniversary later this month.

“Designing next generation spacecraft takes time and in recent years, thankfully, there has been bipartisan consensus on the path forward for human exploration of deep space,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), the Chairman of the House Small Business Committee’s Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade which convened today’s hearing. “With a new Administration taking office in January, we must build upon that commitment and provide the certainty the industry needs to continue growing, innovating, and building our economy to ensure our nation continues its preeminence in human space flight.”

SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER

“One thing is clear: We must not allow the uncertainties of the past to prevail again. We must advance – and accelerate – into the next administration,” said Chris Carberry, the Co-Founder of Explore Mars, Inc.“There is strong bi-partisan support for the goal of sending humans to Mars, and there is clear excitement about that goal from the general public. We must harness that strong consensus.”

“We are approaching another major hurdle, and that is the uncertainty that traditionally accompanies a change in Administrations. Will we once again shift directions and throw our space program – and the small business community upon which its success depends - into turmoil, or will we fully embrace our current policy of sending humans to Mars? We have come so far in recent years, and it benefits no one if we radically change course again,” added Carberry.

ISSUES PERSIST

“I am today – at a crossroads of how to keep the manufacturing side afloat while waiting for delayed payments, extended NASA contract decisions and lack of access to working capital because of stringent banking regulations imposed by the Federal Government. I’ve effectively robbed Peter to grow Paul,” explained Carol Craig, President and CEO of Craig Technologies, a small business based in Cape Canaveral, FL. “I did so because it was the right thing to do – for our business, for our employees and for our community. I believe in our free market system and always strive to offer the very best product and/or service for the price agreed upon. Unfortunately, the cards remain stacked against a small business entrepreneur - even one who overcomes the odds and makes it to the next level.”

“Creating valuable employment opportunities in my community remains my number one goal and priority. But money has to come in the front door on a logical and planned timeline in order to properly budget and ensure the books remain solvent,” added Craig.

NASA OVER THE MOON FOR SMALL BUSINESSES

“I want to emphasize that for small businesses, NASA remains one of the Federal government’s most supportive organizations, testified Stephen Gorevan of Honeybee Robotics, Ltd, a small business based in Brooklyn, NY. “I believe NASA understands the ways in which the small business community can help it succeed with its mission, and it takes seriously its mandate to provide opportunities for small businesses such as Honeybee Robotics to thrive. We are excited for what the future holds and, along with our small business colleagues, look forward to the exciting and important missions ahead.”

CREATING JOBS, SPURRING INNOVATION

“Another challenge Small Businesses face in supporting NASA is the long-term stability of the SBIR-STTRprogram,” added George Davis, Ph.D, the president and founder of Emergent Space Technologies, noting that the program is budget-neutral. “Many U.S. Small Businesses rely on the SBIR-STTRprogram for seed funding in developing a unique product. Others, like Emergent, rely on it to perform strategic R&D for NASA, Air Force and DARPA. Ultimately this funding translates into jobs, both now and in the future.”

“As Albert Einstein once said, 'if we knew what we were doing, we would not call it research.' Congress can help Small Businesses by continuing its strong support of the SBIR-STTR program, especially when it comes to reauthorization in FY2020. Any delay or disruption in this vital program could result in the loss of thousands of job across the country,” concluded Davis.

###

Online Auction End Date Announced for West Virginia “Town” at Sugar Grove Station

GSA news releases - Tue, 07/12/2016 - 12:00am
Online Auction End Date Announced for West Virginia “Town” at Sugar Grove Station

<p>Good afternoon.&nbsp; I am pleased

Good afternoon.  I am pleased to convene the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation & Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security for today’s hearing entitled “Intermodal and Interdependent: the FAST Act, the Economy, and Our Nation’s Transportation System.” 

 

This hearing will explore diverse stakeholder perspectives on the implementation of the FAST Act and its role in improving our nation’s infrastructure, increasing safety, and enhancing economic growth. 

 

We also plan to cover emerging economic and policy opportunities and challenges for freight and passenger transportation providers, shippers, and transportation safety officials.

 

Transportation is critical to our nation’s economy.  Safe and reliable infrastructure facilitates commerce across the United States and with our global trading partners. 

 

As I’ve stated before in this Subcommittee, time is money.

 

Efficient supply chains are key to reducing costs for both businesses and consumers. 

 

America’s economy relies on our vast multi-modal transportation network consisting of railroads, highways, ports, maritime vessels, automobiles, and airplanes. 

 

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, our nation’s 140,000 miles of freight railroads, “move more freight than any other freight system worldwide.” 

 

A recent report from Towson University found that class I freight railroads generated $274 billion in economic activity in 2014.

Nearly 31 million passengers boarded Amtrak’s passenger trains last year.

 

On the nation’s highways, commercial truckers carried almost 10 billion tons of freight in 2014, representing 69 percent of all domestic freight hauled in the U.S.

 

Across our skies, America’s aviation system transported an all-time high of nearly 897 million passengers and carried 66 billion revenue ton miles of cargo.

 

The overall success of the transportation sector is often considered a key indicator for activity in the financial markets.  Many investors and economists believe that transportation sector trends can indicate broader market directions, often referred to as “Dow Theory.”

                                                                                                              

As the Wall Street Journal explains, “Dow Theory holds that any lasting rally to new highs in the Dow Jones Industrial Average must be accompanied by a new high in the Dow Jones Industrial Transportation Average—[this is] the 20-stock index that tracks some of the largest U.S. airlines, railroads, and trucking companies. When the transport average lags, it can presage broader stock declines.”

 

Unfortunately, the transportation sector currently faces economic challenges. In general, rail, maritime, air cargo, and trucking carrier volumes are down because of a variety of factors.  These include a dip in commodities, such as agriculture and certain energy products.  

 

I understand that many carriers are turning to intermodal shipments as a growing area of business, including household goods and manufactured products, as they seek to address current downturns in commodities.  It is my hope that the FAST Act’s robust national freight policy will help to enhance the flow of intermodal freight across our country.

                                                                                                                                                

I’m proud that this Congress accomplished the passage of a long-term highway bill.  It will increase safety on our roads, highways, and railways. It will also provide certainty to states and localities, and ultimately, bolster our economy. 

                                                                                                               

But our work to strengthen America’s transportation network is not done.  Traffic is rising and, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), highway fatalities increased by 7.7 percent in 2015.

                                                                      

As I mentioned, the FAST Act includes a new national strategic freight program, which will help our states prioritize freight traffic and increase safety. The program provides states with the discretion to direct new funds to rural and urban freight corridors with higher commercial traffic.

 

Increased investment will also be available for first and last mile connectors for freight at airports, trucking facilities, and railyards under this national freight program. 

 

Meanwhile, members of this Committee have worked with carriers and law enforcement to reform the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to increase transparency and stakeholder participation.  The FAST Act streamlines motor carrier safety grants, enhances the safety of hazardous materials transportation, and includes a comprehensive rail safety title.

 

I’m pleased that today we’ll hear from a wide array of participants in our transportation network. We are fortunate to have the incoming CEO of one of our nation’s leading freight railroads. We also welcome representatives from the world’s largest chemical manufacturer, America’s passenger railroad, and a motor carrier law enforcement official to speak with us this afternoon.

 

I look forward to our discussion on the FAST Act and the impact it will have on our transportation system and the economic growth of the United States.  

 

I would now like to invite Senator Booker to offer his opening remarks.

 

<p>The protection of privacy on the

The protection of privacy on the Internet is vital.  Protection from identity theft, protection of deeply private information – this is important to us as citizens and as consumers.  And it is fundamental for allowing the Internet and the information economy to thrive.

 

And thrive they have.  Internet usage has increased nine hundred thousand percent since the Telecom Act of 1996, and to meet that demand, the broadband industry has invested $1.4 trillion dollars.

 

This growth occurred under the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) light regulatory treatment of the Internet as an information service, and under the careful eye of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which, with limited exceptions, was responsible for protecting consumer privacy on the Internet.

 

The FTC has brought over 500 cases protecting the privacy and security of consumer information, including cases where companies were alleged to have deceptively tracked consumers online, or to have shared private consumer data with unauthorized third parties.  The FTC has been the leader in protecting consumer privacy.

 

But with the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order, all of that changed.  Broadband Internet Access Service, or BIAS, was reclassified as a telecommunications service, which in turn meant the FTC lost its jurisdiction over the privacy policies of BIAS providers.

 

So now, after having forced the FTC off the field for broadband providers, the FCC has proposed a novel regulatory scheme for the newly reclassified providers.   

 

But the FCC’s rules would apply only to certain parts of the Internet, and that is a source of significant concern.  Both the Obama Administration and the FTC have endorsed a consistent privacy regime across the digital landscape.  Indeed, the FTC staff filed comments with the Commission stating:

 

“[T]he FCC’s proposed rules, if implemented, would impose a number of specific requirements on the provision of BIAS services that would not generally apply to other services that collect and use significant amounts of consumer data. This outcome is not optimal.”

 

For those of you not familiar with bureaucrat-speak, let me tell you, “this outcome is not optimal” is pretty strong stuff for one agency to say about another.

 

I share the FTC’s concern, and by an overwhelming majority, so do the American People.  Progressive Policy Institute polling shows that 94 percent of Internet users believe that “All companies collecting data online should follow the same consumer privacy rules so that consumers can be assured that their personal data is protected regardless of the company that collects or uses it.”  I am concerned that, at any particular time, consumers will not have reasonable certainty of what the rules are, and how their privacy decisions apply.  At home on wi-fi?  At home on a smart phone?  Using your smart phone on a friend’s wi-fi?  Using the Internet at a library?—each of these could have very different privacy implications for a consumer because of the FCC’s proposed piecemeal approach to privacy.

 

There are other problems for consumers as well. 

 

Will the Commission’s proposed rules make it more or less likely that BIAS providers will be able to provide better and more innovative services that could benefit consumers?  And of particular importance to our rural communities, how are small BIAS providers going to be able to comply with the Commission’s proposed regulations?  Most of the rural carriers in South Dakota have between 2,000 and 5,000 broadband subscribers.  How are they supposed to pay for the additional staff, software licenses, training, and other expenses that would be required to comply with the Commission’s proposed rules?

 

The FCC’s push for a separate regulatory scheme for BIAS providers is based in significant part on their claim that “ISPs are the most important and extensive conduits of consumer information and thus have access to very sensitive and very personal information.”  I am not so sure about that.  It appears that many companies that are not broadband providers have access to information about consumers that is more personal and more sensitive than much of what ISPs can access, yet those entities are not covered by the Commission’s proposal. 

 

Is the FCC, which is a novice when it comes to regulating Internet privacy, the right agency to protect us from identity theft and to protect our private information?  Do we want to have inconsistent privacy protections for consumers, with distinctions based upon how the Commission choses to classify services under the Communications Act, an Act that never envisioned the FCC dealing with online privacy or cybersecurity?  Would consumers and competition be better off with the FCC’s proposal? 

 

The witnesses we have before us represent a broad variety of backgrounds and are true experts on these issues.  I look forward to your answers to these and the other questions that you are asked here today.

 

Before we begin, I want to submit a few items to the record of today’s hearing.  I received two letters that I believe contribute greatly to this topic.  The first letter is signed by constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe and 13 other law professors, economists, and experts.  They support strong protections for consumers in the online space, but they have significant concerns with the FCC’s proposal.  Instead, they suggest the Commission “adopt rules modeled after the FTC’s longstanding and highly successful approach.” 

 

The second letter, signed by the heads of eight trade associations representing both the technology sector and the telecom industry, also argues for the FCC to harmonize its effort with the existing FTC framework, in order to minimize consumer confusion and provide flexibility for the marketplace to innovate. 

 

There is also a new paper published by Gerald Faulhaber [FALL-hay-burr], former chief economist at the FCC, and Hal Singer, a Senior Fellow at the George Washington School of Public Policy.  Their paper is titled “The Curious Absence of Economic Analysis at the Federal Communications Commission: An Agency in Search of a Mission.”  While it focuses primarily on the Commission’s failure to ground its recent regulations in economic reasoning, Faulhaber and Singer offer some valuable insight about the FCC’s privacy proposal, in particular noting the complete lack of any cost-benefit analysis by the Commission in this proceeding.

 

I will submit this paper for the record as well.

Kline Statement: Debate on Bills to Strengthen Higher Education

Education & the Workforce Committee - Mon, 07/11/2016 - 12:00am
This bill is one of several bipartisan reforms the House is considering today that will help strengthen higher education and put more Americans on a path to success.

A quality education is crucial to succeeding in today’s workforce. Unfortunately, our costly, bureaucratic, and outdated higher education system leaves too many Americans behind.

We all know the tough challenges that exist. College costs continue to rise. A dizzying maze of student aid programs discourages students from pursuing a degree or credential. Complex federal rules impede innovation and make it harder for students to pursue a degree more quickly and at less cost.

The net result is that it’s become harder and harder for Americans to realize the dream of a higher education. Without the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the workforce, many men and women struggle to find good-paying jobs and earn a living to provide for their families.

Those who are fortunate enough to earn a degree are often saddled with student debt they can’t afford and unprepared to start their careers in an increasingly competitive and changing economy.

We have to do better. We have to open more doors to opportunity and help more Americans reach their full potential.

The bipartisan package of higher education reforms we’re considering is a positive step toward achieving that goal.

Together, these reforms will empower students and their parents to make informed decisions; simplify and improve the student aid process; enhance existing support for institutions serving minority students; and ensure strong accountability for taxpayer dollars.

We have more work to do to strengthen higher education, but today we are making important progress.

I want to thank my Republican and Democrat colleagues for putting their differences aside and working together to help more Americans pursue their dream of a college degree.

 

GSA Begins Search For New Commissioner to Lead Technology Transformation Service

GSA news releases - Mon, 07/11/2016 - 12:00am
Will help to build and develop new organization that is working to improve the public’s experience with government

Federal Circuit Decision Final Word on Jurisdiction for Hatch-Waxman Act Patent Suits?

WLF Legal Pulse - Fri, 07/08/2016 - 9:43am
On June 20, 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit declined to rehear en banc a panel’s decision in Acorda Therapeutics v. Mylan Pharmaceuticals from this past March.  The panel in Acorda ruled that when a generic drug manufacturer files with the FDA an Abbreviated New Drug Application (ANDA) for approval to […]
Categories: Latest News

Thune Addresses FCC Leadership Failures

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, addresses leadership failures at the Federal Communications Commission.

Mr. President, I rise today to speak about the importance of keeping independent agencies accountable to Congress and to the American people.

Congress created independent agencies to be places where expertise in complex areas of the nation’s economy informs policy making, within limits set by Congress.  One such congressional creation is the Federal Communications Commission. 

Congress conferred independence on the FCC so that it would be free from the normal control exercised by the President over the executive branch.  But in recent years, the FCC has behaved less as an independent commission accountable to Congress, and more as a de facto arm of the executive branch, wholly subservient to the President.

At the same time, the FCC has become more partisan than ever before, and an institution that has seized greater regulatory power while simultaneously shutting down bipartisan dialogue and compromise.

The recent rulemaking proceedings regarding Title II common carrier authority, the massively expanded E-rate and Lifeline programs, backwards-looking set-top box rules, and the agency’s power grab over privacy regulations have all been characterized by a lack of bipartisan compromise or respect for the limits of the authority delegated by Congress.

Much of the responsibility for this downward trajectory rests with the current FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler.  For example, during Chairman Wheeler’s confirmation process, I asked him if he would commit to coming to Congress for more direction before attempting another iteration of net neutrality rules.  Mr. Wheeler unequivocally said that he would do so.  However, not only did Mr. Wheeler not come to Congress for more direction, at the behest of President Obama, he jammed through the most radical implementation of net neutrality rules ever—a power grab of stunning proportions—and he did so on a purely partisan vote.

The number of three-to-two party-line votes on Commission meeting items during Mr. Wheeler’s tenure are a clear indication of an FCC chairman who embraces partisanship over compromise.  In just the first year of his chairmanship, Mr. Wheeler forced through more items on party-line votes than the previous four chairs combined.

Chairman Wheeler speaks often of his belief in the importance of competition and market forces.  Hearing that, one might think he would exercise his agency’s powers with humility and a light touch in order to promote the incredible innovation of which our communications sector is capable.  Instead, Chairman Wheeler seems more focused on waging partisan battles and accumulating more power, while at the same time avoiding accountability to Congress and the American people.

I have come to the floor today to talk about the most recent example of Chairman Wheeler utilizing questionable legal authority, while simultaneously trying to dodge public accountability.  This example relates to the FCC’s rules about disclosure of nonpublic information.

The FCC’s own rules prohibit its employees from disclosing nonpublic information to anyone outside the Commission unless expressly authorized by the Commission or its rules.  Nonpublic information includes details of upcoming rulemakings or other actions that the commissioners are still negotiating.  These rules are intended to foster the Commission’s ability to have honest and fulsome negotiations among the commissioners and staff, and to prevent any special interests from gaining a particular advantage over other stakeholders.

Earlier this year, however, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly wrote a blog post expressing his concerns that Chairman Wheeler was instead using these rules to muzzle other commissioners.  Though Commissioner O’Rielly respected the Commission’s rules against disclosing details about upcoming rulemakings without authorization to the press or other stakeholders, he pointed out that Chairman Wheeler was freely disclosing nonpublic information whenever he wanted.

Commissioner O’Rielly was concerned that this allowed Chairman Wheeler to frame and influence the public’s understanding of upcoming issues to his advantage by selectively disclosing information that no other commissioner is allowed to discuss publicly.

Indeed, the chairman’s staff would later tell my staff that Commissioner O’Rielly would not be permitted to correct a factual error stated by Chairman Wheeler if doing so meant discussing nonpublic information.

As Chairman of the Commerce Committee, I sent a letter this March asking Chairman Wheeler to explain whether he discloses nonpublic information to outside groups and how the Commission authorizes his disclosures.  [Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to enter the exchange of letters between myself and Mr. Wheeler on this issue into the record, and that these letters appear in the record at the conclusion of my remarks.]  In his response, Chairman Wheeler maintained that, as chairman, he can unilaterally authorize disclosures of nonpublic information whenever he wants, without any need for approval by the Commission, despite the clear prohibition against doing so in the Commission’s own rules.

The events surrounding the FCC’s March 31 Open Meeting are a striking example of how the selective leaking of nonpublic information can be used to distort an ongoing debate and turn an emerging bipartisan consensus into a partisan power grab. 

The Open Meeting agenda included an order expanding Lifeline, which is a program that has spent billions of ratepayer dollars in an effort to improve access to communications technology for low-income Americans.  While the goal of this program is important, unfortunately, it has been replete with rampant fraud for years, which the U.S. Government Accountability Office has recognized more than once.

A compromise on Lifeline between a Democratic commissioner and the two Republican commissioners was emerging.  This compromise would have included a spending cap to prevent the program from wasting ratepayer dollars.  It turns out, however, that Chairman Wheeler was not on board with this compromise.

On the morning of March 31st, Chairman Wheeler delayed the Open Meeting by several hours, a highly unusual move.  During the delay, Politico published a story about the emerging bipartisan compromise, citing “sources familiar with the negotiations.”  Disclosure of any information about ongoing negotiations right before an Open Meeting is a direct violation of the FCC’s “sunshine rules,” which protect commissioners’ deliberations. 

What happened next is exactly what you might expect.  The Politico story spurred outside political pressure against the emerging bipartisan compromise, which subsequently fell apart.  Ultimately, the Lifeline order moved forward on a three-to-two party line vote, without a cap or other bipartisan reforms, right in line with Chairman Wheeler’s preference.  Yet another three-to-two party-line vote forced by the chairman –thwarting a common sense, bipartisan compromise.

And just last week, 12 states, including my home state of South Dakota, sued the FCC in federal appellate court here in Washington, D.C., challenging the regulatory overreach of the FCC’s Lifeline order that came out of the March 31 Open Meeting. 

In April, I sent another letter asking Chairman Wheeler to explain the source of his claimed authority to disclose whatever nonpublic information he wants, whenever he wants.  I also asked a direct question: “did you, Chairman Wheeler, authorize the disclosure of nonpublic information to Politico on the morning of March 31st in advance of the Open Meeting?"

Chairman Wheeler responded that his position as chief executive of the Commission empowers him to do anything that streamlines the FCC’s work.  According to his interpretation, if the chairman decides on his own that releasing nonpublic information will make the FCC operate more efficiently, he can do it, even though the FCC’s rules explicitly prohibit the disclosure of nonpublic information.

I appreciate the role the chairman plays in the day-to-day management of the Commission, but this appears to be a specious attempt to exempt the chairman from a very clear rule.  Indeed, there is no record that the Commission ever intended for its chairman to be exempt when the agency adopted the rule twenty years ago, and the rule very clearly gives the Commission, not its chairman, the authority to disclose nonpublic information.

In responding to my April letter, Chairman Wheeler also ignored the question of whether he personally authorized the leak to Politico on the morning of the Open Meeting.  My staff followed up with Mr. Wheeler’s staff several times on this matter, and they have emphatically stated that Chairman Wheeler refuses to answer this question.

Everyone who cares about government accountability should pause to think about this, Mr. President: even though Chairman Wheeler claims he has the clear legal authority to leak whatever nonpublic information he wants, whenever he wants, he nevertheless has refused to answer this simple question about whether he indeed authorized the leak on the morning of March 31st.

Since Mr. Wheeler could have just said “no” if he did not actually authorize the leak of nonpublic information, that leaves only two possible conclusions:

  • One, Chairman Wheeler did authorize the leak, but is not confident in his roundabout interpretation of the rules and fears admitting to violating them, or
  • Two, Chairman Wheeler simply does not respect the legitimate role of Congressional oversight and believes that he is unaccountable to the American people.

I would also note, Mr. President, that while Chairman Wheeler refused to answer whether he authorized the disclosure, he sought to obfuscate and cast blame by stating that it was instead Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai who leaked nonpublic information in advance of the Open Meeting.  This shell game is unworthy of a chairman of an independent commission.

Indeed, Mr. Wheeler’s attempt to cast blame on another commissioner only adds emphasis to the overall point I’m making here.  Chairman Wheeler seeks to use the rule prohibiting the disclosure of nonpublic information as both a shield and a sword.  On the one hand, he claims that the rule prohibiting the disclosure of nonpublic information does not apply to him; on the other hand, he seeks to shut down criticism and debate from another commissioner by stating that the commissioner may have violated the rule prohibiting disclosure of nonpublic information.

The FCC’s nonpublic information rules were intended to facilitate and protect internal Commission deliberations.  Chairman Wheeler instead is using them to stifle or manipulate the other commissioners.

Fortunately, the FCC Office of Inspector General is now investigating what happened on March 31st.  The IG is looking into who disclosed the nonpublic information about ongoing negotiations among the commissioners, including any role Chairman Wheeler had in the leak to Politico.  I look forward to the IG’s findings, and expect that we will learn the answers to the questions I have posed to Chairman Wheeler, particularly the one question that he has refused to answer so far.

Taken alone, the Lifeline leak may seem to be just a minor transgression that can be chalked up to business as usual in Washington, D.C.  But in the case of current FCC leadership, it is just one example out of many that demonstrate a disregard for the limits Congress has placed on the agency’s authority.

The regulatory power grabs over Title II common carrier authority, and the FCC’s recent privacy rule are further evidence that Chairman Wheeler shares the Obama Administration’s propensity for legal overreach and the intentional circumvention of Congress.  In this environment, Congressional oversight is more important than ever as a critical check on bureaucratic power. 

Regardless of who sits at the helm of the Commission, such oversight must be pursued, and I am committed to ensuring that it does. 

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