Arguing that the Federal Communications Commission has too much power over the Internet, U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a North Carolina Republican, and other congressional Republicans are backing legislation they say would make the agency more transparent.
The FCC in February voted 3-2 to allow for regulation of the Internet in a way that enforces net neutrality, or treating all Web traffic the same way. Service providers would not be able to block some websites and services and favor others. In a news release at the time, the FCC said it had adopted “strong, sustainable rules to protect the open Internet.”
Ellmers and other Republicans, however, say Congress should make decisions about the future of the Internet.
“We believe in a free and open system, but how can you have a free and open system when you have five unelected individuals who are making decisions for communication in this country, affecting us back in North Carolina on so many different levels,” Ellmers said in an interview.
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Congress should “have a voice so we can be speaking up for our constituents,” she said. “We believe it needs to be an open process.”
The FCC is an independent agency overseen by Congress, the “primary authority for communications law, regulation and technological innovation,” according to its website. The five commissioners are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Only three can be from the same political party.
Ellmers introduced a bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee, where she’s a member, that would require the agency to publish new rules on its website within 24 hours of when they’re adopted. Rep. Bob Latta, an Ohio Republican, offered a companion bill that would order the FCC to publish a list of decisions that do not require a vote of the commissioners.
Another bill by Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, would require the FCC to publish the draft of a rulemaking order or other actions when they’re circulated to the commissioners for a vote.
The committee’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee plans a hearing to air the legislation on Thursday. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly will testify. O’Rielly is a Republican commissioner who voted against the regulations.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee that his agency had been making changes to improve the way it works and to increase transparency.
The FCC, he said, is “more efficient, more transparent, and more engaged with the public. Most important, the agency is more productive, advancing multiple initiatives to spur innovation, investment, and economic growth, while protecting consumers.”
Differences of opinion
But Wheeler said the three bills on transparency wouldn’t help. Instead, he said, they would “create additional bureaucratic requirements that will be harmful, not helpful, to consumers and to businesses that count on the FCC to establish rules or decide matters in a timely manner.”
Of Ellmers’ bill, Wheeler said that the FCC tries to post rules within 24 hours. During his term that has been the case for 73 percent of rules. But in some cases, staffers need more time to draft the necessary texts, he said.
Several other House Republicans have proposed efforts to undo the FCC’s February ruling. Rep. Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican, offered a resolution of disapproval that would do just that. In a news release, he predicted that the agency’s regulation would slow Internet speeds, increase prices and hamper development. His resolution would need only a majority vote in the Republican-controlled Senate and not the 60-vote threshold that requires support from some Democrats.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat who also is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, supports an open Internet with no blocking, no intentional slowing of service by Internet service providers and no paid prioritization for faster service. His office said he doesn’t support the Republican bills about transparency, but he’d like to see more transparency in billing for consumers.
“It’s only now that the FCC has moved forward on net neutrality that you’ll see these things play out over the next couple of months,” Ellmers said.
Ellmers supported a similar bill proposed by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, that would nullify the rule and prohibit the FCC from issuing a similar one.
It’s not clear how any of these bills would fare. They’d likely hit a veto if they cleared Congress and reached President Barack Obama’s desk. The FCC’s rules also face lawsuits filed by industry groups.