Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

How Democrats Can Win by Losing on Net Neutrality

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It sure looked final: On Dec. 14, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality rules that barred internet service providers from blocking or slowing web traffic. People who bristle at government regulations cheered the end of these rules, enacted under Democratic President Barack Obama, saying they imposed too much government oversight of broadband traffic. But Democrats aren’t ready to surrender. They’re planning to use a tool most recently embraced by Republicans to force a vote in Congress on the issue. The odds may be long, but many Democrats think that there’s a possible win in losing.

1. How can Democrats do this?

Through a vehicle known as a Congressional Review Act, or CRA. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on Jan. 9 that he would force a vote in the chamber using the CRA, which would essentially be an official form of disapproval of the FCC’s action. All 47 Democratic senators and two independent senators who normally vote with them have since said they’ll back this effort.

2. What’s motivating this?

Schumer and other Democrats think net neutrality will be a big issue in the 2018 midterm elections. Democrats want Republicans to have to vote on the record on the topic so that they can use it as a campaign issue. Millennials have flooded senators with messages defending net neutrality, and they helped elect the first Democratic senator from Alabama in 25 year, Doug Jones. And the pro-net neutrality group Fight for the Future said last week it plans to rally opposition to any lawmaker who votes against the CRA.

3. How will it work?

The CRA procedure gives Congress a chance to reverse an agency decision. It was historically rarely used, but after President Donald Trump took office, congressional Republicans passed more than a dozen disapproval resolutions to reverse actions taken under Obama. These disapproval resolutions need to pass in a short window after a regulation takes effect. The FCC publicly released its 539-page final order on Jan. 5, and the new rule takes effect upon approval by the Office of Management and Budget. That process, which can take weeks or months, needs to play out before Congress can step in. 

4. Do Democrats have a chance?

It’s not impossible. Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, called the FCC ruling a mistake and said she intends to vote for the resolution. With 49 senators who caucus with Democrats already on board, this would mean they’d just need one more Republican to pass the resolution. Odds are murkier in the House, where Representative Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, has said he’ll introduce a companion resolution. House rules give Republican leadership a tighter rein there than in the Senate. If it should happen to pass both chambers, Trump, the man who appointed a longtime foe of net neutrality to head the FCC, would likely veto any resolution. Senator John Thune, the chamber’s No. 3 Republican, said those barriers mean the measure won’t succeed.

5. What happens with the end of the rules?

Eliminating the regulations allows broadband providers to begin charging websites for smooth passage over their networks. Critics said this could pose barriers to smaller companies and startups, which can’t afford fees. Broadband providers said they have no plans for anti-competitive “fast lanes,” since consumers demand unfettered web access. Supporters of net neutrality also say carriers will favor their own video and content. Still, according to the FCC, other agencies could step in to curb any abuses. Web companies such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and Inc. wanted to keep the previous regulations.

6. What would Democrats do next?

Look for a lot of television and internet ads that pin the end of net neutrality squarely on Republicans.

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