The House Friday was debating whether the Federal Communications Commission's network neutrality rules should be allowed to stand, with the party divide over that issue mirroring the backdrop of a looming government shut-down over sharp political differences.
The bottom line from the Republicans: The FCC is trying to take over the Internet. From Democrats: Republicans are trying to kill the Open Internet. Those points were getting prime C-SPAN time Friday afternoon as the only piece of business on the floor as a federal shut-down loomed.
The debate came after Democrats called for a vote on whether they should bring up the legislation at all. The Republicans won that vote 238 to 174.
The spur to the FCC debate Friday was consideration of the Republican-backed resolution, H.J. Res. 37, which would invalidate the FCC's Dec. 21 vote to expand and codify network neutrality regs. The resolution has virtually no chance of passage, so the debate was more an exercise in the public airing of their sharp differences over regulation in general, and Internet regs in particular.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) began the process by saying the FCC resolution was about nothing, suggesting there was definitely something wrong with that. He called on the House to take the resolution off the calendar and instead work on a clean budget bill.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, who proposed the resolution, controlled the half-hour of debate time for the Republicans. HE called the rules a power grab and said the FCC reliance on general authority (sec. 706) authority could open net regulation to all 50 states. He called it "regulation by bank shot."
Walden said there is no crisis warranting government intervention and that the order picks winners and losers. He repeated his assertion that the only reason industry players did not oppose the regs was due to the threat of even tougher regs.
Walden also defended the resolution process, which is a fast-tarck measure that does not allow for amendment. He pointed out that Democrats had themselves twice before supported resolutions of disapproval, both times concerning overturning FCC regs. He said a vote against the resolution would allow the FCC to adopt Title II regs when it loses court challenges to the new rules.
On the Democratic side, former Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said the debate was coming under the shadow of the budget crisis and at such a moment, Republicans were bringing a bill to the floor that would end the Internet as we know it and threaten jobs and investment. "This is an outrageous sense of priorities," he said.
Waxman cited members of the Open Internet Coalition--Google, Netflix and Amazon--who called for the rules. He said Comcast, Google and Verizon have a virtually monopoly on access. He called it a partisan and anti-innovation bill that is not going anywhere.
Walden countered that the bill was not partisan, saying that there were two Democratic co-sponsors. Rep. Fred Upton (R- Mich.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, said the resolution's goal was to put breaks on runaway bureaucracy. He said the information technology sector is the one sector firing on all cylinders and that government needs to keep its hands off.
Citing former FCC Chairman and fellow Michigander Jim Quello, Upton said: "If it aint broke, don't break it." The market has not failed, said Upton, and the rules would create more harm than good and hurt the economy. HE said the commission keeps changing its story about where it gets authority for the rules, "teetering" between weak explanations.
Rep. Ann Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking Communications Subcommittee member, called it a say day. She said the resolution wasn't about innovation or jobs or consumers. She called it an ideological assault on a government agency and basic consumer protections. She said it would "disable" the free and open Internet. Google and eBay are both based in Eshoo's district.
Those and other online content companies were big supporters of the FCC rules.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), former chair of the Energy & Commerce Committee, said the FCC had given themselves the right to regulate the Internet and Congress should stop in from asserting that authority.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said the Republicans had proved that they always side with the big behemoth companies. They are saying it is OK for big communications companies to dominate the Web, he said. Markey practically shouted his criticisms, saying Republicans were trying to shut down the job-creating engine of an open Internet.
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said that the real reason for the rules was to give the FCC power over business plans at Google's request.
Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said if the resolution passed the FCC would be stripped of its authority over egregious 'net openness violators, like ISP's "shaking down" content providers. He asked what harm there was in preventing blocking of legal Web sites and content. Doyle pointed out that he had offered an amendment to the resolution to prevent blocking, but that it was not adopted. Actually, no amendments were germane since the resolution is simply an up or down vote on an FCC reg.
Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) pointed out that 60 Democrats wrote to the FCC in the last Congress to say they did not want the FCC to regulate the Internet.
Eshoo countered that the Democrats that had written were opposed to Title II regs, which she pointed out the FCC had stood down from and adopted the compromise regs eventually passed.