Net Neutrality Vote: Exercise in Futility or Something More?
As widely discussed, the U.S. Senate on May 17 secured passage of a resolution designed to thwart the FCC's December 2017 decision to abandon the Net neutrality rules announced and implemented by the Obama Administration in 2015 and sustained by the D.C. District Court in 2016. While most quarters view the protections offered by Net neutrality as imperative, the Trump Administration's deregulatory push has enabled the FCC's Republican majority to force abandonment of the rules, despite overwhelming bipartisan support of keeping them in place and intact.
Of course, this resolution represents only the first step in undoing the FCC's actions (more on that in a minute). The next step in this type of legislative override of agency action would require a similar vote in the House of Representatives, followed by a presidential autograph. Neither of these are likely. But the fact remains that several Republican senators, recognizing the consequences, joined the Democrats to send a clear message that the FCC's decision was ill-advised (some might dare to say "bone-headed"), and, perhaps more importantly, that this issue will have political consequences, if not before June 11, then certainly on Nov. 6 when the entire House is up for grabs.
If you think consumers won't base voting decisions on Net neutrality, just ask them how they'll feel when the quality of available of services (cable, Internet, phone) declines and the cost for those same -- if not lesser -- services drops. If they're rural consumers, just ask them how much their access to decent (read: the advanced communications services standard of 25 meg down, 3 up) has improved in the last six months. Or even if they've seen any trucks stringing cable or building towers.
Barring some intervening action, June 11 is the date that the rules will be abandoned. While the largest providers have claimed publicly that they have no interest in blocking or throttling, it's hard to imagine them not taking advantage of rules that allow them to do so, particularly when it could mean increased revenue and reconfigured products. I also find the claim that this deregulation will spur increased investment nothing short of specious... but I digress.
While the recent Senate action isn't likely to thwart the abandonment of Net neutrality rules, it's far more than just a political stunt. Furthermore, it seems to be gaining at least some traction in the House. In mid-May, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) announced a petition that aligns with the Senate resolution. Although he's not likely to secure the 218 votes necessary to get the bill to the House floor, as of this week, he had 160 co-sponsors supporting the move to retain Net neutrality protections. As of yet, no Republican representatives have signed on to the House action; however, 93% of Democrats and a whopping 80% of Republicans do support Net neutrality, according to a recent University of Maryland study. As such, this action does provide those Republicans who wish to distance themselves from the administration with the opportunity to do so. With the issue having clear and direct consequences for consumers, this resolution will surely be an issue in the November Congressional election whether or not it clears the House. If you're in a contested district, expect to hear more about Net neutrality as a hot-button topic.
The Congressional Review Act (Pub.L. 107-5), which is the tool being used, at a minimum, to raise the visibility of this issue, was enacted as part of the Newt Gingrich vintage "Contract with American Advancement Act of 1996" enabling Congress "to review, by means of an expedited legislative process, new federal regulations issued by government agencies and, by passage of a joint resolution, to overrule a regulation." Since its enactment in 2001, the act has been used 17 times to override federal agency action -- not easily accomplished given all of the required hurdles. An additional 13 attempts have been unsuccessful -- five ended with a presidential veto, four when only one house passed the resolution, and four when the resolution passed neither house. (Interestingly, in 2017, two Democratic senators, Cory Booker and Tom Udall, introduced S.1140 to repeal the act in its entirety. But I digress. Again.)
What's most compelling to me about the abandonment of Net neutrality protections in the name of fewer regulations is that the people who stand to lose the most are largely the rural Trump voters, many of whom have substandard Internet access and increasing need for access. Although my representative and I don't agree on this issue, I call his office regularly, and politely, to remind him that his job is to represent his constituents first -- not his own interests. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to take the same action. Net neutrality is critically important, and we cannot afford to let it "go gentle into that good night."