With the Federal Communications Commission poised Thursday to impose unprecedented regulations on the Internet, congressional Republicans have quietly backed down on a plan to block the looming FCC rules ahead of time with their own legislation.
Republican lawmakers blamed Obama administration officials, who they say have interfered in bipartisan talks to produce legislation that would ban some of the onerous practices the FCC seeks to stop, but with far less government regulation than the pending agency rules proposed.
“The Democrats have been pushed away from negotiating with us,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said.
Thune said he’s unsure when Republicans will produce a bill but he said it will have to wait until after Thursday, when the FCC is scheduled to vote on a package of far-reaching regulations aimed at establishing “net neutrality” for Internet users.
According to Thune, the Obama administration and FCC officials swayed Democrats not to talk to the GOP about legislation until after the FCC votes.
Central to the FCC’s proposed rules is a plan to reclassify the Internet as a public utility, a move that would introduce an unprecedented layer of government regulation to the broadband Internet industry.
President Obama has pushed for the reclassification, which he said is needed to ensure a fair and open Internet. But critics say it will stifle innovation and increase fees and taxes by imposing on the industry a 1934 government regulation meant for managing large utilities, such as the old telephone companies.
Thune admitted that waiting until after the FCC votes on the new rules on Feb. 26 could make it difficult to pass a bill.
“It gets more complicated, in my opinion,” Thune said. “That is what I told Democrats. Yes, you can wait until the 26th, but you are going to lose critical mass that I think is necessary to help with an alternative once the FCC acts.”
Thune said even though the GOP holds majorities in both chambers, it made little sense to take up legislation now because without some Democratic cooperation, the bill would fail in the Senate or if it passes, Obama would veto it.
“We are not going to get a signed bill that doesn’t have Democratic support,” Thune said. “And we think this is an issue that needs to have bipartisan support.”
Last month, Thune and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., were far more enthusiastic about passing legislation.
They authored an op-ed about their own proposal, which includes many of the provisions in the FCC’s proposed rules for net neutrality, but bans heavy government regulation.
“We have made this an early priority of this Congress,” Thune and Upton wrote, “demonstrating we can come together on a bipartisan basis to protect the vitality of the Internet — now so indispensable to our economy and way of life. Enduring, long-term protections for our digital freedoms are something we should all support.”
But neither the House nor the Senate has voted on the legislation.
“We’ve been reaching out to Democrats for some time,” Thune said. “That’s been frowned upon by the administration.”
The FCC’s Thursday vote includes consideration of new rules against “throttling” or purposely slowing down service, as well as the practice of blocking certain websites while giving preference to others. The proposed rules would also give the FCC the authority to end paid prioritization, a practice that allows some content providers to pay extra to avoid network congestion by “jumping in line.”
The FCC vote could hit a snag by Thursday.
A Democratic commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, has asked FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to make some changes to the proposed rules, according to the Hill newspaper, but she does not oppose reclassifying the Internet as a utility and is generally in favor of stronger government regulation of the Internet. Tech industry writers said Thursday that Mignon’s requested changes would strengthen government oversight.
In the House, where Republicans have not scheduled a vote on FCC legislation, the Energy and Commerce panel will instead hold a hearing Wednesday on the potential impact of the FCC's proposed rules.
"The closer we get to the FCC rubber-stamping President Obama's Internet grab, the more disturbing it becomes. Consumers, innovators, and job creators all stand to lose from this misguided approach," Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., said.
Thune, meanwhile, said he will begin negotiating with Democrats on FCC legislation after Thursday’s commission vote.
Thune said likely lawsuits from major carriers against the FCC rules, plus a required comment period, will buy Congress some time to come up with a bill before any new regulations are implemented.
But Thune lacked the enthusiasm expressed in his January op-ed.
“We still have a little window to do something legislative,” he told the Washington Examiner, “but I think the incentive for Democrats start to diminish significantly once the FCC rules.”