A bill to reinstate the Obama administration's net neutrality rules passed its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday as a House panel voted to advance the measure.
Democrats pushed the Save the Internet Act through a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in the face of Republican opposition. Lawmakers approved the bill in an 18-11 party-line vote after an at-times contentious markup.
Proponents of the measure reiterated their long-running arguments that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations are essential to the internet.
"Without this legislation there is no backstop to make sure big corporations don't use their power to undermine and silence their small competitors or their political opposition," said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneHouse Democrats ramp up probe of FDA approval of Alzheimer's drug Intercept bureau chief: Democrats dropping support of Medicare for All could threaten bill's momentum House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 MORE (D-N.J.), chairman of the full committee.
The bill would reinstate the FCC's 2015 order that prohibited internet service providers from blocking or throttling web content or from creating internet fast lanes.
Those rules reclassified internet service providers as common carriers, opening them up to tougher regulations and oversight from the FCC.
Republicans have long opposed giving the federal agency broad powers over the broadband industry, and in 2017 the FCC, under GOP control, voted along party lines to repeal the rules and roll back its own authority to oversee broadband providers.
GOP lawmakers spent Tuesday's hearing grilling the Democrats' legislative counsel about the powers the bill would grant the FCC, reviving their complaints that the rules are a broad regulatory overreach that would allow the federal government too much power over the internet.
"I'm disappointed that we're considering this proposal, which [is] like so many other things like the Green New Deal and all these other plans to have more government control over our everyday lives," said House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseFifth House Republican comes out in support of bipartisan infrastructure bill Democratic leaders racing toward Monday infrastructure vote House GOP to whip against bipartisan infrastructure bill MORE (R-La.).
Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology had threatened to try to hamstring the bill with amendments but at the last minute chose not to introduce them during the markup, clearing the way for the party-line vote.
But even though the measure is unlikely to reach President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE's desk this year, lawmakers recognized the high stakes of the net neutrality fight.
Four Democrats on the panel — Reps. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldWHIP LIST: How House Democrats say they'll vote on infrastructure bill House Democrats push to introduce John Lewis voting rights bill within weeks Black Caucus presses Democratic leaders to expedite action on voting rights MORE (N.C.), Tom O'Halleran (Ariz.), Kurt SchraderWalter (Kurt) Kurt SchraderWHIP LIST: How House Democrats say they'll vote on infrastructure bill GOP ramps up pressure on vulnerable Democrats in spending fight Drug companies on verge of sinking longtime Democratic priority MORE (Ore.) and Tony Cárdenas (Calif.) — had not voiced support for or co-sponsored the bill ahead of Tuesday's markup.
That led to an online lobbying campaign from activists and some internet companies targeting the lawmakers to sign on. All four ended up voting to advance the legislation.
For both industry groups and consumer advocates, the vote was another opportunity to revisit the contentious fight over the internet rules.
“Since the FCC repealed its Open Internet Order in 2017, broadband providers have slowly and carefully moved to erode the concepts of net neutrality in their business practices and their advocacy," Phillip Berenbroick, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, said in a statement.
"The Save the Internet Act would restore net neutrality protections nationwide. We urge members of the House to support this bill and encourage every American to demand that their Representatives vote to approve it immediately."
"Most importantly, the Subcommittee approved the bill without adding harmful amendments that would gut the FCC’s authority to protect consumers, promote competition, incentivize innovation, and help close the digital divide," he added.
Industry groups, meanwhile, reiterated their calls for Congress to come up with a bipartisan bill that avoids giving the FCC tougher powers by designating internet providers as common carriers.
NCTA — The Internet & Television Association, a trade group representing cable and broadband providers, urged the two parties to come together.
“With today’s action, the subcommittee has stubbornly insisted on a partisan path that leads to a dead end," the group said in a statement.
"The result of allergically resisting a bipartisan approach to resolving this decades-old issue is that consumers will fail to receive the net neutrality protections that are generally accepted and industry will not get the certainty it needs to invest more boldly."
The bill is now set to be voted on by the full committee. Democrats have been eager to push the legislation as quickly as possible, with polls showing the internet rules widely popular with voters of both parties.
Democratic leaders introduced the bill at the beginning of March and have already said they plan to bring it to the floor the week of April 8.
With the majority of House Democrats signing on as co-sponsors, the bill will likely easily pass the chamber but faces long odds in the Senate. A similar bill passed the upper chamber last year, thanks to three GOP defectors. But it is unlikely supporters will find the needed Republican support this year.
Both sides have called for bipartisanship on the issue, but neither party seems keen on the other's proposals. Democrats are emphatic that the rules on broadband providers' conduct are meaningless without strong enforcement mechanisms for the FCC. Meanwhile, Republicans are doubling down on framing the issue as a fight against big government.
"This today is about government control versus individual freedom," said Scalise at Tuesday's hearing.
Updated at 2:58 p.m.