‘Phase One’ of Communications Law Rewrite Weighed Down by Net Neutrality

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A House Republican effort to rewrite portions of the nation’s telecom policy is off to a rocky start. Blame it on net neutrality.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), an Energy and Commerce subcommittee chairman, said the Federal Communications Commission’s decision in February to classify the internet as a public utility effectively derailed plans to review and update the Communications Act.

“It kind of put a full nuclear discharge in the middle of our whole plan to do a rewrite of the Comms Act,” Walden said in an interview yesterday before a markup in his Communications and Technology subcommittee.

He referred to the slate of bills approved at a markup yesterday as “phase one of the Communications Act update.”

“It kind of put a full nuclear discharge in the middle of our whole plan to do a rewrite of the Comms Act.” – Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.)

But a series of party-line votes underscored how net neutrality could be a sticking point for Walden’s efforts to revise the law.

Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, the top Democrat on the panel, said three draft bills proposed by Republican were underpinned by GOP opposition to the FCC’s open-internet order, which is slated to take effect on June 12.

“Let’s put it out on the table,” she said at the markup. “The whole thing is really about net neutrality.”

Her comment elicited a chuckle from Walden, followed by a quick retort from Eshoo.

“I don’t think it’s funny,” she said. “I mean, we don’t have to agree with each other, but you’re not a source of laughter to me. I take you seriously.”

Walden responded: “It is laughable to me that everything where we disagree suddenly has a tie to the talking point that it’s about net neutrality.”

The markup focused on several FCC transparency draft bills: three proposed by Republicans, three by Democrats and one backed by both Walden and Eshoo.

The panel unanimously approved the Democratic bills, but the Republican measures were approved on party-line votes.

Republicans in turn voted down an amendment offered by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) that contained provisions from a bill he introduced last month, H.R. 2125, titled “Keeping Our Campaigns Honest Act.” The acronym, KOCH, is a reference to the Koch family, which has contributed millions of dollars to conservative political campaigns.

The disputes highlighted the challenges facing Walden if he hopes to gain bipartisan support for overhauling the Communications Act of 1934, the law that created the FCC. Along with Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the full committee, Walden has been promising such a review since late 2013.

Before the markup, Walden said in an interview that the push for FCC transparency constitutes the first step in a “title by title” review of the Communications Act.

“You’ve got to start somewhere and this is where we’re starting,” he said.

Six of the bills approved at the markup would amend Title I of the Communications Act, which establishes the FCC’s role. Two of the GOP draft bills, from Rep. Renee Ellmers (N.C.) and Rep Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), deal with aspects of the FCC’s rulemaking process that were heavily scrutinized by Republicans when the agency voted on net neutrality.

Ellmers’s draft would require the FCC to publish rules the day it adopts them. The FCC adopted its open internet order on Feb. 26, but the rules weren’t published until March 12.

Legislation proposed by Kinzinger would require the agency to release any document circulated to commissioners ahead of a vote. Before the commissioners voted in February, Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the FCC asking it to release a draft of the proposed rules that had been distributed internally.

Eshoo said these measures would “throw more sand in the gears” of the FCC.

Walden didn’t say what the next step is in the Communications Act rewrite. But in speaking about how the net neutrality debate has complicated those efforts, he said the path forward could hinge on court decisions in the legal battle waged by telecoms and trade groups against the new open-internet rules.

“We’ve got to work through it and see what the courts say,” he said.

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