The Future of Broadband

The GOP’s Next Example Of Obama’s Executive Overreach

Republicans hope to take advantage of the FCC’s net neutrality decision.

WASHINGTON, DC - Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) leaves the weekly Republican Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol February 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Feb. 22, 2015, 3 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans have lost the net neut­ral­ity fight. But that doesn’t mean they’ll stop talk­ing about the is­sue.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion is on the pre­cip­ice of vot­ing this week to en­act White House-backed reg­u­la­tions that would re­clas­si­fy broad­band In­ter­net as a util­ity and block so-called “fast lanes” on mo­bile and In­ter­net devices.

Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress and on the 2016 cam­paign trail already have shown an eager­ness to por­tray the vote as an­oth­er ex­ample of ex­ec­ut­ive over­reach by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. They plan to con­tin­ue slam­ming the pres­id­ent for avoid­ing Con­gress in a sim­il­ar vein to re­cent ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions on im­mig­ra­tion, Cuba, and en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions.

In Novem­ber, after Pres­id­ent Obama came out in sup­port of de­clar­ing the In­ter­net a “tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice,” Sen. Ted Cruz’s tweet con­demning the plan as “Obama­care for the In­ter­net” went vir­al. Sen Marco Ru­bio hasn’t shied away from bash­ing the rules as a free-mar­ket-killing plot that “threatens to re­strict In­ter­net growth and in­crease costs on In­ter­net users.”

And Sen. Rand Paul has de­ployed both ar­gu­ments, de­rid­ing net neut­ral­ity as an har­binger of a tax on the middle class while de­clar­ing in an email blast earli­er this month that “We’ve seen this movie be­fore — it’s called Obama­care.”

Fans of the FCC’s ac­tion — and even some of its op­pon­ents — say these kind of head­line-grabbing “King Obama” at­tacks be­tray a lack of un­der­stand­ing or in­terest about the ac­tu­al policy dis­putes un­der­gird­ing the net neut­ral­ity fight. But they un­der­score a be­lief that if Re­pub­lic­ans can’t win a de­bate about net neut­ral­ity, they can at least win by us­ing it as an­oth­er prop to de­nounce what they see as a series of cava­lier power grabs by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

To get a jump on Thursday’s FCC vote, Re­pub­lic­ans will use a House En­ergy & Com­merce hear­ing on Wed­nes­day to fur­ther blast the agency and tout their le­gis­lat­ive ap­proach that would block ISPs from block­ing web­sites, se­lect­ively slow­ing traffic or cre­at­ing fast lanes — but not re­define the In­ter­net as a pub­lic util­ity. And on Fri­day, the liber­tari­an group Tech­Free­dom will host GOP com­mis­sion­ers Ajit Pai and Mi­chael O’Ri­elly for a “fireside chat” to dis­cuss the new net neut­ral­ity rules.

Mean­while, three con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees have an­nounced plans to in­vest­ig­ate wheth­er the White House ex­er­ted im­prop­er in­flu­ence over FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er and the agency as a whole as it con­sidered dif­fer­ent net neut­ral­ity op­tions. It’s not the next Benghazi, but ob­serv­ers ex­pect those probes to drag on for at least sev­er­al months and of­fer end­less op­por­tun­ity to hit the White House.

Wheel­er has denied that Obama is pulling strings at his agency, or that the plan will res­ult in any new fees or reg­u­lated In­ter­net prices. He has told Con­gress that it should feel free to pur­sue net neut­ral­ity le­gis­la­tion after the FCC acts, say­ing, “We have been at this for a year, and it’s time to shoot.”

In­ter­net act­iv­ists have also grown ex­cep­tion­ally tired of the par­tis­an jabs and ques­tion the GOP’s wis­dom in try­ing to link the net neut­ral­ity vote to a broad­er big gov­ern­ment nar­rat­ive.

“After Title II goes through and the sky doesn’t fall and a bunch of these out­rageous claims from the tele­com lobby don’t come true, my hope is that the Re­pub­lic­ans will see the writ­ing on the wall and real­ize this is not a sword worth fall­ing on,” said Evan Greer, cam­paign dir­ect­or of Fight for the Fu­ture, a left-lean­ing ad­vocacy group that sup­ports Title II reg­u­la­tion. “If Re­pub­lic­ans know what’s good for them, they’re go­ing to drop this. It’s not a good is­sue for them, it doesn’t res­on­ate with their base.”

Be­neath the high-octane rhet­or­ic, a small, ded­ic­ated group of Re­pub­lic­an law­makers like Sen. John Thune and Reps. Greg Walden and Fred Up­ton are do­ing just that. They have made clear they in­tend to keep work­ing on net neut­ral­ity le­gis­la­tion as an al­tern­at­ive to the FCC rules — a pri­or­ity that is likely to get wrapped up in an on­go­ing push to re­write the Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions Act.

Polit­ic­ally and policy-wise, Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t giv­ing up on net neut­ral­ity. But Demo­crats aren’t, either. To them, net neut­ral­ity proved an ad­vant­age­ous policy win, one where mass mo­bil­iz­a­tion of pro­gress­ive act­iv­ists helped spur Obama and the FCC in­to ad­opt­ing tough rules to pro­tect an open In­ter­net — a point even some who hate the plan will con­cede.

“This is the per­fect wedge is­sue,” said Ber­in Szoka, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Tech­Free­dom, which op­poses the up­com­ing FCC move. “Re­pub­lic­ans are really bad at mes­saging on this. For Demo­crats, they have a mes­sage that sounds great. Their mes­sage is far, far sim­pler.”

That mes­sage, at its core, is one of pro­tect­ing the In­ter­net as it is, while ac­cus­ing Re­pub­lic­ans of kow­tow­ing to su­per-rich cable jug­ger­nauts at the ex­pense of mak­ing the In­ter­net a “pay-to-play” world. Szoka spec­u­lated that net neut­ral­ity could get air time from Demo­crats dur­ing the 2016 cycle, es­pe­cially if likely Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Hil­lary Clin­ton faces a worth­while chal­lenge on the left from a pop­u­list firebrand like Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren.

While Clin­ton has been largely mute on net neut­ral­ity, War­ren came out swinging last year, say­ing in a speech that “the In­ter­net shouldn’t be rigged to be­ne­fit big cor­por­a­tions, and that means real net neut­ral­ity.” A chal­lenger from a pop­u­list like War­ren could make net neut­ral­ity a buzzy top­ic in primar­ies for both parties.

An­oth­er Wash­ing­ton real­ity: Lob­by­ing will con­tin­ue as long as there is money to be made.

“This is the [new] cul­ture wars,” Szoka said. “Think about the gay mar­riage de­bate, for ex­ample. People who have made a liv­ing of the fight on both sides need to keep the fight go­ing.”

This story has been up­dated.

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