At first blush, tea party members would appear to be uniformly opposed to increased government regulation in any sector of the economy. But some leaders are open to narrow legislation that would codify principles to preserve an open Internet.
To be clear, there is no enthusiasm for Internet regulation among the tea party and its key affiliates. However, their aversion to the Federal Communications Commission reclassifying broadband from an information service to a public utility is so strong that it leaves open the distinct possibility of tea party support for tailored regulation.
"I thought the [House network neutrality bill] was a good starting point for a legislative approach," said Phil Kerpen, vice president of policy at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. "It was very encouraging to see Congress willing to act on this."
Americans for Prosperity works closely with tea party activists and considers itself a "key ally" of the movement.
Red State, a conservative blog that many tea partiers read, endorsed the House net neutrality bill. Red State tech blogger Neil Stevens wrote on September 29 that "House Republicans need to get on board and support" Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman's legislation. That same day, Waxman's bill collapsed due to lack of GOP support.
"It's your job, Congressmen, to write and pass a [net neutrality] bill that names the FCC the officer on duty," Seton Motley, president of Less Government and editor in chief of StopNetRegulation, wrote in a recent op-ed for the Washington Examiner. "Until then, they are not."
Wayne Brough, chief economist at Freedom Works, said, "It wouldn't be that hard to gain some momentum in the tea party to support a bill that got to the heart of the issue." Freedom Works, led by former House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, bills itself as a "leading voice of the Tea Party movement."
Brough preferred Waxman's bill to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's proposal to reclassify broadband under Title II of the Communications Act, a more stringent regulatory regime applied to telephones. Genachowski released the plan, which he called the "third way," last spring after a court ruling cast doubt on the commission's regulatory authority on broadband. The Waxman bill would have taken reclassification off the table.
"The only reason [Congress] needs to act is to let the FCC know that what they are doing is exceeding their statutory authority," Brough added.
"I think congressional action that includes something I would not prefer to see is better than reclassification," Kerpen said.
Tea party support for such an effort would be a reversal from the role the movement played in lawmakers' attempt to advance a measure last month.
Indeed, "the tea party made it possible for Republicans to opt out of supporting Waxman's bill with no political ramifications and appear as champions to their base," said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation.
"I can see why the Republicans would have been resistant to signing on this in a tea-party-infused environment," said Matt Wood, associate director for the Media Access Project.
Several dozen tea party organizations wrote the FCC in August urging the commission not to proceed with reclassification. "I prefer, truth be told, that the government keep their hands off of this," said Lisa Miller, founder of Tea Party WDC and one of the signatories of the letter.
Bringing more tea partiers on board for a net neutrality bill will take convincing, insiders say, and big carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon, might be the right actors to do it.
"If legislation is needed to stop the FCC from carrying out its 'third way' proposal, it will be up to industry to sell the idea to the tea party," said Paul Raak, head of legislative affairs at the Independent Telephone and Telecommunications Alliance. "Otherwise, the tea party will always be negative on net neutrality."
This article appears in the Oct. 16, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.