On Internet’s Future, Democrats Abdicate Rather than Legislate

The Democrat-led effort to use the Congressional Review Act to allow re-imposition of heavy-handed federal regulations on the internet is full of irony as well as drama. If they succeed, they will have outsourced a major policy issue to an executive branch agency, effectively abdicating the responsibility that Congress has for actually legislating on the hot-button issue of net neutrality. Where else in the world would a tool like the Congressional Review Act, intended to assert legislative authority over major policy matters, be wielded for precisely the opposite purpose? Welcome to Washington.

In April, the Federal Communications Commission implemented Chair Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which unwound the Title II power grab by the Obama administration. The Title II regime was a way that the FCC imposed telecommunications regulations written in 1934 onto the greatest marvel of the Information Age, threatening consumers and small businesses with higher prices, fewer choices, and second-class technology infrastructure. Taxpayers would suffer under this scheme too, as government services ranging from traffic management to first responders could be deprived of cost-effective solutions the internet can enable.

Economically speaking, these problems can be quantified. In the two years when Title II regulations were in effect, the United States saw a steep drop in investment for the telecommunications industry. When companies know that they have to operate under an archaic and arbitrary regulatory regime, they are less willing to invest in technological advancements that could be regulated into obsolescence. As National Taxpayers Union has noted before, “more government involvement in the Internet … means more fiscal hits on everyday Americans. Taxes and regulations often form a menacing ‘tag team’ that delivers those punches.”

The Title II regime was implemented ostensibly to preserve the principle of net neutrality, but would have failed to do so while also harming the American technology sector. Preserving net neutrality is a laudable goal, but the FCC’s Title II rules aren’t a good way to do so. Ultimately a legislative solution should be fashioned.

Unfortunately, the Democrats’ CRA proposal is a sign that they have no interest in even trying to do so. It is a “show vote” that would, if successful, legitimize the original unwarranted overreach from the FCC – the 2015 order imposing Title II strictures. This is a shame, because there is a bipartisan consensus on the need for Congress to take responsibility on net neutrality. Pai’s order, which backs the FCC away from such draconian measures, actually provides more latitude for Congress to work its will.

Sens. John Thune (R.-S.D.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), respectively the chair and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, have both agreed in the past that it’s legislation, not FCC regulation, that can preserve net neutrality. Thune has endorsed the principles of net neutrality and pledged to work for legislation, and Nelson has said that Congress must “provide lasting safeguards” for the principles of net neutrality.

Thune and Nelson are correct, and Congress should work on durable legislation that can protect the principles of net neutrality while also making sure that America’s technological edge can be maintained.

The CRA proposal needs to be defeated if there is any hope for the principles of net neutrality. Congress must take action, rather than allowing an unaccountable executive agency to make policy. Everyone agrees on the need for net neutrality legislation, but a CRA that would reinstate the failed Title II regime would send American telecommunications policy back to 1934. It’s time for Congress to embrace the future rather than shrug toward the past.

Pete Sepp is president of National Taxpayers Union, a nonpartisan citizen group founded in 1969 to work for lower taxes, limited government and economic freedom at all levels.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult