Sparks fly in net neutrality hearing

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Tensions are high in Congress one day before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) votes on new net neutrality rules.

While Republicans criticized the looming rules as a misguided and dangerous expansion of federal power during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hearing on Wednesday, Democrats accused their colleagues of using fear tactics and overly politicizing the effort.

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The Internet “is not broken, and it does not need the FCC’s help to be effective,” said Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha Blackburn178 Dems demand end of Planned Parenthood probe Carson: 'I would not want to be on the ticket or in the Cabinet’ Sunday shows preview: Sanders opens up about battle with Clinton MORE (R-Tenn.), an often vocal critic of the FCC’s rules.

Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) echoed fears that the agency’s action “brings with it a host of consequences that have the potential to disrupt the Internet we have come to know and rely on.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the committee's ranking member, said he was “baffled” about why the hearing was even taking place.

“This subcommittee and our full committee have too much other important work to do than have these same hearings over and over again,” said Pallone, noting that the Energy panel had held a hearing on net neutrality just one month ago.

Republicans have been united in their opposition to the FCC’s Thursday vote, which will take the controversial step of treating Internet access similarly to a utility service like phone lines. Critics say the regulations will apply outdated restrictions that could hinder the growth of the Internet and might lead to new taxes and fees.

Robert McDowell, a former Republican FCC commissioner, co-wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month fearing that the rules could “trigger expanded jurisdiction of the Web” through international treaties, which could empower autocrats in Russia and China. Ajit Pai, a current GOP FCC commissioner, made similar comments on Capitol Hill recently. 

Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) asked to enter McDowell’s op-ed in the subcommittee’s record on Wednesday, prompting eye-rolling from ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

Raising concerns about Internet censorship is “misinformed and irresponsible,” she said.

The countries seeking to expand their power over the Web “are actively engaging in blocking their citizens’ access to information online, and that’s very important to have down in the record,” she added.

“It’s not U.S. policy — it’s the stark opposite of it.”

Eshoo and Walden also clashed over draft net neutrality legislation unveiled by Republicans this year that she said prevents “follow-up” enforcement from the FCC by limiting some of its powers.

“The FCC would have complete and total enforcement capabilities to enforce the law,” countered Walden. “I would disagree with the characterization by my colleague.”

The subcommittee hearing was originally scheduled to be the first of two hearings held on net neutrality on Wednesday.

But FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler declined to testify before the House Oversight Committee, which outraged Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and led him to delay the hearing. The session was scheduled to examine whether the White House applied inappropriate pressure on the independent FCC.