House panel advances rider to block Internet rules

House panel advances rider to block Internet rules
© Greg Nash

The House Appropriations Committee approved a funding bill Wednesday that includes a policy rider to block newly implemented net neutrality rules temporarily.

The 30-20 party-line vote on the financial services and general government appropriations bill is the most direct action by congressional Republicans to stall the new rules since they were approved by the Federal Communications Commission in February. 

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During the markup, Democrats said policy riders like the net neutrality provision included in the funding bill could lead to a shutdown of numerous agencies in October.

"We have received more phone calls on this issue than any other issue in a long, long time," Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) said of the Internet regulation. "And I don't understand why some people can't understand that net neutrality is here, it is here to stay and it is what the American people want."

Republicans have floated a number of other proposals seeking a legislative compromise on net neutrality or to kill the rules outright. But none has made progress in either chamber.

The net neutrality provision included Wednesday was just one concern Democrats had with the bill. They blasted the proposal, saying it underfunded multiple agencies and included other problematic policy riders on the D.C. budget, ObamaCare, abortion, and travel to Cuba, among others.

It is highly unlikely President Obama would give the bill his signature if it ever made it to his desk. The Office of Management and Budget raised concerns about the net neutrality provision before the markup, and Obama pushed hard for the FCC's Internet rules last year.  

Serrano and the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Nita Lowy (N.Y.), called the riders "veto bait." Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) called the Internet provision "crazy."

A Democratic amendment to strip the net neutrality provisions out was voted down 31-19, mostly along party lines. Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) was the only Democrat who voted to leave it in place. Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) did not vote. 

Telecom companies are suing to kill the agency’s controversial net neutrality rules, which reclassify Internet access as a telecommunications service similar to traditional telephone service. The regulations give the FCC more authority to bar Internet service providers from prioritizing any piece of Internet traffic above another.  

Republicans despise the new rules, which went into effect Friday, and the appropriations bill would stop their implementation until a final court ruling, which could be early next spring. 

Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), who leads Appropriations subcommittee on financial services, said the block was "merely a legislative stay." He asserted there is no dispute in his party "about the desire for a free and open Internet." 

But Democrats said the measure could give incentive to telecom companies to drag out their litigation for years while a stay remained in place. 

Another rider would require any new FCC rules to be published for 21 days before a scheduled vote, a point of contention during the net neutrality debate. While FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said the agency is completely uninterested in regulating the rates that Internet providers charge consumers, the appropriations bill would specifically bar it.  

"All we are doing is codifying his own words," Crenshaw said about the bar on rate regulation. 

Even Democrats such as Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.) said they wanted to keep the restriction on rate regulation. 

The appropriations bill would reduce the FCC's budget by $25 million in 2016 compared to fiscal 2015, even though the agency asked for a boost in funding to move and consolidate its office building. 

Serrano said the limits would force the FCC to "either expend more dollars later to move elsewhere ... or make more cuts to their core functions to pay for it."