Armed with an ideological agenda, House Republicans took aim at net neutrality again this month, quietly introducing a Congressional “resolution of disapproval” to overturn recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) laws prohibiting anti-competitive behavior among Internet providers.
H.J. Res. 37 passed 30-23 on March 15, and will now go to the House of Representatives for a vote, which House Speaker John Boehner said in late February could happen “as early as next month.”
The resolution “disapproves the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission relating to the matter of preserving the open Internet and broadband industry practices … and such rule shall have no force or effect.”
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Republicans took control of the House in 2010 by pledging to focus on the economy and jobs creation – but many GOP leaders have thus far offered little more than talking points and symbolic measures that are unlikely to pass into law.
The resolution of disapproval is a rarely used procedure that allows Congress to formally reject and reverse the actions of a federal agency. House Republicans previously introduced a resolution of disapproval last November to overturn the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, but were unsuccessful.
According to the Congressional Review Act, the resolution would have to pass in both the House and Senate and avoid a veto by President Barack Obama.
At a speech at the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) Convention, Boehner said that the House would “use every tool at our disposal” to fight the FCC laws.
“Right now, freedom and free expression are under attack by a power structure in Washington populated with regulators who have never set foot inside a radio station or a television studio,” Boehner said at the time. “We see this threat in how the FCC is creeping further into the free market by trying to regulate the Internet.”
NRB President Frank Wright previously stated that the Fairness Doctrine threatens the livelihood of conservative and religious programming. “In the short run, the Fairness Doctrine has the immediate threat of being applied to Christian broadcasters and to the church in a very deleterious way,” Wright told Broadcasting & Cable.
The resolution had the support of GOP leaders from both the House and the Senate, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), Communications and Technology Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Oregon), and Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton (R-Michigan).
Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, called the passage of the resolution a “reckless action” that “opens the door even wider to corporate abuse of [a] principle that protects our ability to connect with everyone else online.”
“Open Internet protections actually prevent Speaker Boehner's dark scenario from happening: They forbid companies from unfairly blocking or degrading Internet websites and applications while keeping control over Internet content in the hands of end users – people like you and me,” Karr wrote in a blog post. “The speaker knows full well that real Net Neutrality has nothing to do with a government takeover of the Internet.”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) spoke out against net neutrality regulations last week at an event organized by the Safe Internet Alliance, calling it a “fairness doctrine for the Internet” that allows the FCC to police when the artistic community “can deploy their creativity … They do not want a czar to determine what speeds will be available.”
Enacted in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine required that broadcasters present balanced viewpoints of controversial or important stories. At the time, the majority of the media was controlled by three main networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – and lawmakers worried that broadcasters could abuse their dominant status to air biased stories.
The FCC revoked the law in 1987 on the grounds that it restricted journalistic freedom.
“The 'Fairness Doctrine,' that's another threat to freedom with an innocuous name,” Boehner said in his February 28 speech.
Although the Fairness Doctrine is not likely to become law again in the future, some Democrat lawmakers have called for its reinstatement. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) said last year that “whether it's called the Fairness Standard, whether it's called something else – I absolutely think it's time to be bringing accountability to the airwaves.” Her stance was echoed by numerous legislators, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
Still, the law has a contentious history. Some legislators, like Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) have avoided calling for its reinstatement and instead offer alternative ideas on how to enforce anti-discriminatory behavior. Franken and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) in January introduced the Internet Freedom, Broadband Promotion, and Consumer Act of 2011, which would create a “just and reasonable” standard for all charges and practices related to broadband Internet access. Speaking at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, this year, Franken said the bill would “call violations of net neutrality out for what they are – anti-competitive actions by powerful media conglomerates.”
Obama has also repeatedly stated his opposition to the Fairness Doctrine. White House spokesman Ben LaBolt told Fox News that “as the president stated during the campaign, he does not believe the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated.” In fact, Obama's campaign press secretary Michael Ortiz wrote in a June 2008 statement that Obama, then still a candidate, wanted to open the airwaves to diverse viewpoints not through a Fairness Doctrine, but through net neutrality.
“Sen. Obama supports media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets,” Ortiz wrote.
Republicans recently began targeting public broadcasting as well, introducing legislation to cut off government funding for National Public Radio.
Following last week's vote, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voiced their support of the measure. “I applaud the committee's approval … that will next be considered by the full House as we work to create jobs, keep energy costs from rising unnecessarily, and rein the explosive expansion of the government,” Upton said.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-California) ranking Democrat on the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said that repealing net neutrality regulations “will create market uncertainty, stifle consumer choice, and harm innovation and job creation. Americans overwhelmingly oppose practices which limit a free and open Internet, but Republicans have turned a deaf ear.”