WASHINGTON, May 9, 2018 — Senate Democrats on Wednesday announced plans to invoke a rarely-used Senate procedure to force a floor vote on a bill to roll back the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of Obama-era regulations preventing internet providers from blocking or throttling internet traffic.
“Today we are officially filing the discharge petition to force a vote on my Congressional Review Act resolution that would put strong net neutrality rules back on the books,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. said as he kicked off a Wednesday morning news conference. “The CRA resolution would fully restore the rules that ensure Americans aren’t subject to higher prices, slower internet traffic, and even blocked websites because the big internet service providers want to pump up their profits.”
“We’re here today because Democrats in the Senate are taking the final step to consideration of a bill to restore net neutrality,” added Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “We’re now one step away from allowing the American public to see where their elected officials stand on protecting their internet service.”
Markey's bill would restore previous network neutrality rules
The bill in question is S.J. Res. 52, a so-called resolution of disapproval, which makes use of procedures laid out under the Congressional Review Act in order to roll back FCC rules in effect since April which repealed the Obama-era regulations put in place under then-chairman Tom Wheeler (D).
The regulations, formally known as net neutrality rules, prohibit broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon from interfering with users’ internet traffic or prioritizing some traffic over others. Under Wheeler, the FCC did this by classifying broadband internet access services as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. Their repeal was a priority for the current Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has long opposed strong net neutrality protections.
A rare opportunity for Democrats to hit back for the little guy
Schumer cast Markey’s bill as part of a broader response to how under Trump administration congressional Republicans frequently enact the priorities of big business into law at the expense of “average folks.”
“When the Republican-led FCC voted to repeal net neutrality in December, they handed the largest internet service providers all the cards, and left American families and small businesses helpless before these providers,” he said. “That’s why we Democrats are so concerned about net neutrality.”
“Our Republican friends say ‘let the free market prevail, let the big boys do whatever they want,’” he continued. “We don’t do that for highways, you can’t charge different toll rates for different people. We don’t do that for utilities. In the 21st century, the internet is every bit as important to average folks as highways and utilities have been through the 20th century, and we’ve learned through the years that average folks need some protection from the big boys.”
What Schumer called the “final step” is the filing of a discharge petition, which when signed by 50 senators, invokes a rarely-used parliamentary procedure to force a bill to be brought to the floor for a vote. The maneuver is necessary because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not indicated any interest in bringing the resolution, which was introduced by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
Democrats are using one of the GOP's favorite laws against it
Under the CRA, which was passed by the Republican-led Congress in 1996 and signed by then-President Bill Clinton, Congress can use a resolution of disapproval to repeal rules put in place by regulatory agencies like the FCC.
Such bills are joint resolutions, which require the president’s signature to become law. But unlike most bills, CRA resolutions cannot be filibustered in the Senate, meaning only 51 votes are required to pass them.
One of these CRA resolutions is unlike the others
But while Democrats have complained that those resolutions lifted restraints on business, Markey said his use of the CRA will do the opposite.
“Passing this resolution will “send a clear message that this Congress won’t fall to the special interest agenda of President Trump and his broadband baron allies, but rather, will do right by the people who sent us here,” he said, adding that he was “pleased” that his bill has bipartisan support thanks to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Although there are only 49 Democrats in the Senate currently, the addition Collins gives Democrats enough signatures to force McConnell to hold a floor vote on Markey’s resolution.
Markey hopes pressure from constituents will convince one more Republican to vote 'yes'
As for the 51st vote that would allow the bill to pass the Senate, Markey said a number of other Republicans had “expressed an openness” to voting for it, and that they might be swayed by constituent calls supporting the bill.
It’s likely that those senators will receive a number of those calls thanks to an online advocacy campaign including many popular websites, which are showing their users ads urging them to call their elected representatives in support of Markey’s bill.
But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the choice of whether to support Markey’s bill or not “is not at all complicated.”
“if you want a free and open internet, which means that after you pay your internet access fee, you get to go where you want, when you want and how you want, you have to support the Markey measure,” said Wyden, a longtime advocate of network neutrality protections.
The alternative envisioned by FCC Chairman Pai, Wyden said, “[puts] the big communications monopolies in charge rather than the consumers.”
“What he’s about is building an info era aristocracy where the well-to-do get faster speeds…and the average person is on the road to digital serfdom,” he added, urging internet users to employ the same tactics used in the campaign to stop the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2011 and 2012.
Even if Democrats get a 51st vote for the bill, its prospects in the House are uncertain
While Markey noted that Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa. has introduced a companion bill in the House, H.J.Res. 129, that bill remains a long-shot despite having 160 co-sponsors, as it lacks Republican support.
When asked about whether there’d been much outreach to House Republicans by the bill’s Senate supporters, a source within Senate Democratic leadership said there hadn’t been much in the way of inter-chamber outreach at this point.
“[The] first step is [the] Senate, where we’re still fighting to get 51,” said the source.
Even if Markey and Schumer's gambit fails, however, there is still hope for advocates of the old rules, in the form of a federal lawsuit filed against the FCC by a number of public interest groups in hopes that a court will order Pai and his colleagues to return to enforcing common carrier regulations on broadband providers.
(Photo: Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., reads from a statement as Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., look on. Image captured from video at https://www.facebook.com/EdJMarkey/videos/10155722134966379/)