The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Net neutrality bill sails through the House but faces an uncertain political future

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the congressional Democrats' plan to reinstate "net neutrality" on March 6, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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House lawmakers on Wednesday approved a Democrat-backed bill that would restore rules requiring AT&T, Verizon and other Internet providers to treat all Web traffic equally, marking an early step toward reversing one of the most significant deregulatory moves of the Trump era.

But the net neutrality measure is likely to stall from here, given strong Republican opposition in the GOP-controlled Senate and the White House, where aides to President Trump this week recommended that he veto the legislation if it ever reaches his desk.

The House’s proposal, which passed by a vote of 232-190, would reinstate federal regulations that had banned AT&T, Verizon and other broadband providers from blocking or slowing down customers’ access to websites. Adopted in 2015 during the Obama administration, these net neutrality protections had the backing of tech giants and startups as well as consumer advocacy groups, which together argued that strong federal open Internet protections were necessary to preserve competition and allow consumers unfettered access to movies, music and other content of their choice.

Months after Trump took office, though, the Federal Communications Commission repealed the Obama-era net neutrality rules. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, with the support of the telecom industry, argued it had inhibited private-sector investment and exceeded the agency’s own authorities. In its place, Pai and the GOP-led FCC only required Internet providers to be transparent about the ways they manage their networks, while shifting oversight to another federal agency.

The parties’ competing visions — and seemingly widening political divide — played out as debate began on the House floor. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said the bill would give the “FCC the authority to protect consumers now and in the future.”

Republican Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the top GOP lawmaker on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC, blasted the bill as “another plank in [Democrats’] socialist agenda.”

Wednesday’s vote -- adopted on clear party lines -- marked the latest swing of the pendulum in a lengthy battle in Washington over what sites and services consumers can access on the web, and which startups and industries might flourish as a result. The debate has shifted every time control of Congress and the FCC has changed parties, resulting in years of competing Democratic and Republican proposals and a flurry of lawsuits — yet little progress in crafting a lasting federal solution.

It also reflected the continued efforts by Trump’s top Democratic critics in Congress to battle his administration’s deregulatory agenda, a political crusade that’s touched on issues including environmental protection and transportation.

With net neutrality, some Democrats sounded an optimistic note that the House’s vote — coupled with sustained public pressure from net neutrality supporters — could shift their fortunes. During the FCC’s repeal effort, millions of Americans wrote the agency in staunch support of the government’s rules, spurred on by Web activists and the likes of HBO’s John Oliver.

”I think the president, as he heads into 2020, when he sees a groundswell, a juggernaut coming at him, I think he’s going to change,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) ahead of the House vote.

But the bill faces long odds in the GOP-controlled Senate, after Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) told reporters Tuesday that the measure is “dead on arrival." Aides to the president also issued an official notice Monday that they would recommend a veto of the bill, arguing it would “return to the heavy-handed regulatory approach of the previous administration.”

To that end, opponents of the House bill have slammed it as a political stunt aimed at rallying Democratic voters ahead of the 2020 presidential elections. Even some Democrats acknowledged that the prospects of restoring net neutrality rules in the current political climate remains unlikely.

“I do not get the sense the fundamental dynamics have changed,” Sen. Brian Schatz (Hawaii), a top Democrat on the tech-focused Senate Commerce Committee, said in an interview last week. “We're still on the side of net neutrality, they're still not, and they believe they won at the FCC. So they're not interested in establishing a statute. And the only way this is going to change is if we get a new FCC.”

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, argued the Democratic-backed bill could lead to a bipartisan dialogue.

“I don’t know if they’ll pass this bill,” he said in an interview. “[But] it may very well be a traditional thing where the Senate passes its bill and we go to conference to come up with a consensus … They may differ on how and what it should cover, but they still think we should do it.”

Net neutrality advocates embarked on their campaign to restore the government’s rules almost as soon as Pai finished his repeal. Dozens of state attorneys general, tech companies including Mozilla and a host of consumer advocates sued the FCC last year, arguing the agency had acted improperly in rolling back the Obama-era rules. A federal court heard oral arguments in the case in February. A decision is expected this summer.

In the meantime, a slew of state governments began writing and implementing net neutrality protections of their own. A law adopted in California — seen by some advocates as tougher than even the rules implemented federally in 2015 — quickly drew a legal challenge from the Justice Department in a case that’s still pending.

Reacting to the vote, FCC Chairman Pai blasted bill as a “big-government solution in search of a problem,” adding in a statement: "This bill should not and will not become law.”