Sen. John Thune Will Lean on FCC Over Net-Neutrality Rule

“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.”

The Honorable John Thune speaks at Thursday's National Journal event "Conversation with the Chairman" for Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Feb. 26, 2015, 5:45 a.m.

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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