On the day the Federal Communications Commission is poised to take a historic vote to reclassify the Internet as a public utility, a major victory for open-Internet advocates, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee had other ideas. He is bringing the five FCC commissioners before the committee in two weeks to ask them, more or less, what they were thinking.
The oversight hearing, set for March 18, “will allow me and my colleagues to directly question the chairman about the overreaching broadband order,” said Sen. John Thune at a Thursday National Journal LIVE event underwritten by Visa Inc.
The South Dakota Republican isn’t happy that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler promised the committee to look to Congress for Internet rules if the courts struck down an earlier net-neutrality rule, which it did last year. Now, Thune said, Wheeler is going in the opposite direction by directly imposing far-reaching regulations on a technology that is still evolving. “He turned on a dime,” Thune said.
“The real shame for Internet innovators is the missed opportunity to create bipartisan rules,” added Thune, who is also the No. 3 Republican in the Senate.
Thune is working with members of Congress in both parties to create a net-neutrality bill that would overrule the FCC. So far, Democrats are keeping their powder dry on that issue to see how the FCC’s regulation will play out. Two weeks ago, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid had this to say about classifying the Internet the same way that phone service is classified: “I’m for it.”
But the Commerce Committee’s ranking Democrat, Bill Nelson of Florida, has said he is willing to work with Thune and other Republicans on legislation. He told National Journal in an interview that he wants to look at the FCC order first before determining that legislation is necessary — unlike Thune, who would have preferred to legislate before the commission acted. But Nelson added that he has always been open to coming to a bipartisan agreement with Thune about a law that will guarantee an open Internet but not impose regulatory burdens.
Thune had harsh words for the Obama administration and Wheeler. “Even as members of Congress like the House Energy and Commerce Committee have tried to reach out to find a bipartisan solution, we have not found a willing partner in the FCC or the White House,” he said.
Thune noted that none of the five FCC commissioners voting on the Internet rule have been elected, nor will Obama again face voters at the ballot box. He suggested that further congressional investigations of the White House’s involvement in the commission’s rule-making are in the works, including Freedom of Information Act requests about communications between White House officials and the FCC over net neutrality.
“I’m also disturbed by reports about the highly partisan nature of Chairman Wheeler’s process and attempt to gloss over the White House’s involvement,” Thune said. “It has created a perception that his decisions have less to do with objective evidence and more to do with politics.”
When it became clear last fall that the FCC was moving in the direction of heavily regulating the Internet, Thune started laying the groundwork among Republicans in Congress to overrule the FCC. While he is philosophically opposed to imposing rules on developing technology, he says Wheeler’s bold move has forced Congress’s hand. He has garnered support from typically skeptical conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to move forward with a law that would set parameters for open-Internet use but not go as far as classifying the Internet as a utility.
Thune says he is sympathetic to concerns that consumers have raised about fast lanes and slow lanes on the Internet. His goal is to clarify what is allowed and what isn’t. “The only place to get clear rules is through legislative action,” he said.
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