Democrats line up behind Obama in net-neutrality battle

Democrats are falling in line behind President Obama’s call for federal regulators to treat the Internet like a public utility.

While many liberal lawmakers had previously been mum on the issue or hewed to a middle ground, Obama’s call for the “strongest possible rules on net neutrality” has created a sharp partisan divide, with Republicans warning of a government takeover of the Internet.  

“I think it has been kind of a snowball,” said David Segal, the executive director of the liberal activist group Demand Progress.

 “I think the effect of the Obama statement, plus the elections being behind us, has made it easier for more people to come out pretty quickly.”


On Monday, Obama called for the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify the Internet so that it could be regulated like a public utility.

The proposal was once considered fringe but gained legitimacy as the FCC drafted new net neutrality rules that seek to require Internet service companies, such as Comcast, to treat all online traffic equally.

If the FCC reclassifies broadband Internet as a utility service, it can impose stronger regulations than ever before.

After Obama’s statement, Democrats, such as Sens. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinIt's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems unveil impeachment measure; Vindman splits GOP The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems shift strategy on impeachment vote MORE (D-Wis.) and Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallSenate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA Overnight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons Senate panel advances Turkey sanctions bill despite Trump objections MORE (D-N.M.) — who had previously backed net neutrality as a concept but declined to say that it should be regulated like a utility — endorsed the president’s proposal.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, had previously pushed a “hybrid” proposal that used just some utility rules for the Web. But on Monday, he put his full weight behind the president’s more aggressive plan.

“The president is leading on an issue that’s important to most Americans, and we’re seeing the Democrats in Congress follow his leadership,” said Becky Bond, the political director of Credo Action.

While Obama’s statement might have clarified the terms of the debate, the Democratic Party was already moving in his direction.

When the FCC was writing previous rules in 2010, Rep. Gene GreenRaymond (Gene) Eugene GreenTexas New Members 2019 Two Democrats become first Texas Latinas to serve in Congress Latina Leaders to Watch 2018 MORE (D-Texas) sent the agency a letter warning it that reclassifying the Web would lead to "uncertainty," and it would cost jobs. At the time, more than 70 other House Democrats joined him.

When Green sent a similar letter this May, just 19 of his fellow Democrats signed on. 

An appeals court tossed the FCC’s 2010 regulations out earlier this year, paving the way for the agency to write new rules.

Democrats clearly see the issue as a political winner among their base.

On Tuesday, Organizing for Action — the advocacy group formed out of the president’s 2012 reelection campaign — sent supporters an email asking them to sign a petition urging the FCC to heed the president’s call.

“The president is out there, fighting for net neutrality, because none of us can afford to take it for granted,” wrote Toby Fallsgraff, the organization’s digital director.

“That's something worth fighting for — especially in the face of an absurdly well-funded opposition.”

While the new FCC rules aren’t likely to come until next year, they are certain to meet opposition on Capitol Hill from GOP lawmakers who are wary of any effort to regulate the Internet.

GOP leaders of both the House and Senate have said that aggressive rules would hurt the economy and have lambasted the idea of reclassifying the Internet under a law that was written decades ago.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE (R-Ohio) called net neutrality “a textbook example of the kind of Washington regulations that destroy innovation and entrepreneurship” and pledged to stop the new rules.

Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump McConnell says he'll be in 'total coordination' with White House on impeachment trial strategy MORE (R-Ky.), the likely next Senate majority leader, criticized Obama for advocating for “heavy-handed regulation that will stifle innovation and concentrate more power in the hands of Washington bureaucrats.”

Some supporters of the tough rules are trying to get Republicans to change their minds.

Just last month, Internet companies including Tumblr, Etsy and Reddit joined together to launch the Internet Freedom Business Alliance, a group endorsed by former Republican Rep. Chip Pickering (Miss.) that is aimed at getting Republicans to support strong net neutrality rules in the name of a free market agenda

On Tuesday, the group released a poll conducted by Vox Populi Polling showing that 83 percent of people who identified as “very conservative” said they were concerned about Internet service providers being able to “influence content.” Additionally, 83 percent of conservatives said Congress should take action to prevent cable companies from erecting “toll lanes” on the Internet.

The poll did not specifically ask about the potential for the FCC to treat the Internet like a utility.

Andrew Shore, the alliance’s executive director, acknowledged that he has a steep climb in persuading GOP lawmakers, but said it’s important that someone reach out to Republicans to make the business case for tough rules.

“I think it’s fair and intellectually honest for us to say that we have our work cut out for us,” he said on Tuesday.

“The other side had the field to themselves for a very long time, and they don’t anymore.”