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House passes bill barring FCC from regulating internet rates

House passes bill barring FCC from regulating internet rates

The House on Friday passed a bill to ban the Federal Communications Commission from setting or reviewing the rates that companies charge for internet service.

The largely party-line vote is a win for Republicans, who have pushed for the past year to nibble away at the FCC’s internet regulations, which are currently being challenged in federal court.

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"The last thing we want to throw on there is the cold water of Washington bureaucracy, after the fact regulation, that will stifle competition and innovation that has benefitted consumers," Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said. 

Democrats argue the House bill hits squarely at the FCC's net neutrality rules, and only five members of the party crossed over to vote with Republicans.

The stand-alone bill has no real chance of of being enacted this year with a White House veto threat hanging over it. The FCC says it has no intention of setting the price of internet service under its net neutrality rules, but Democrats argue the bill approved Friday is too expansive. 

"This bill in its broadness is an attack on consumers and an attack on the FCC's net neutrality rules," Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said. "Now that is not a surprise because the majority has never supported that."

The debate about government regulation of the monthly prices that internet service providers charge customers has been hotly debated ever since the FCC passed its net neutrality regulations on a divided vote last year. The regulations focus on policing abusive conduct from companies like Comcast and Verizon, and are touted as a way to ensure that traffic flows freely for consumers and web companies. 

The FCC rules reclassified internet service providers as common carriers — strict rules that would allow the commission to prevent those companies from blocking, throttling or creating paid fast lanes for preferred web traffic. The FCC decided to avoid applying the type of utility-style regulations that came along with reclassifying internet service. 

Republicans, who strongly oppose the FCC's rules, say their legislation is simply meant to codify that promise. Both chambers have previously unsuccessfully tried to attach a similar proposal as a budget rider, but the Senate has not moved stand-alone legislation. 

"I have a hard time trusting that this administration will follow through," said GOP Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). "So today we’re voting to hold the administration to its word." 

Democrats and net neutrality advocates say the short bill is more sinister. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told lawmakers the bill might prevent the commission from applying the bulk of its net neutrality rules. It could also call into question the agency's general conduct standard, as well as other consumer protection authority and its merger review process, Wheeler said.  

To satisfy some of those concerns, Republicans adopted an amendment in committee to make clear the legislation would not restrict a list of FCC authorities related to truth in billing, universal service, paid prioritization and interconnection.

The big fight between Republicans and Democrats is the definition of rate regulation. Democrats want to follow a Supreme Court precedent that defines rate regulation as an agency using its rule-making authority to set specific prices on internet service. But the Republican bill defines rate regulation as any rule-making or enforcement authority to "establish, declare or review the reasonableness of such rate."