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Democrats push new bill to write net neutrality into law, but can it pass?

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‘Democrats are honoring the will of the people,’ says Speaker Pelosi

House Democrats Address The Media After Closed Caucus Meeting Photo by Win McNamee / Getty Images

Today, Democrats officially launched their efforts to save net neutrality once and for all. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have announced bills with the intention of reinstating the net neutrality rules that the Federal Communications Commission moved to repeal back in 2017.

The dual bills share the title of the Save the Internet Act. The full text is three pages, and, according to lawmakers, it will put in place the same rules that the FCC worked to remove over a year ago. The bill would not only codify key pillars of net neutrality, like no blocking or throttling, but it would also consider internet access a “utility” under Title II of the Communications Act, which is the hottest point of contention between Republicans and Democrats.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said that the House will take up the bill in “a matter of weeks.”

In December 2017, the FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, approved the commission’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which repealed the net neutrality rules that were put in place only two years earlier. The repeal went into full effect the following June, allowing internet providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon to block and throttle content without any legal recourse from the government. The move was met with severe public criticism and was opposed by large tech firms like Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

As soon as the repeal happened, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle began to propose new solutions for reversing the rule. In 2018, lawmakers attempted to invoke the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to undo the Pai order, an obscure procedure that allows Congress to repeal recently instated regulations without being blocked by a filibuster. The motion passed the Republican-controlled Senate, but it fell short of the necessary votes in the House. When the year ended and the congressional term closed, any hope of a CRA-based repeal was curbed.

According to lawmakers, this new bill mirrors the language in the CRA.

Now, Democrats are taking a more straightforward approach. The Save the Internet Act would establish Title II authority through the standard lawmaking process. After a strong showing in the 2018 midterm elections, the House is now led by Democrats, and it seems likely that the Save the Internet Act will pass the chamber. “With the Save the Internet Act, Democrats are honoring the will of the people,” Pelosi said.

The bill will face an uphill battle in the Senate where Republicans hold the majority. Beyond that, the act will also be vulnerable to a veto from President Trump, who has been vocally skeptical of net neutrality in the past.

Democrats are hopeful that they’ll be able to convince enough Republicans to vote for the measure in order to avoid a filibuster, but simply getting the bill through committee may be a challenge. Last week, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill, said that net neutrality legislation wouldn’t be a priority for the committee this year. “May I say that I think there was a whole lot of hyperbole on [net neutrality] a year or so ago,” Wicker said. Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD), who also formerly chaired the Commerce Committee, has already come out against the Democrats’ new measure.

Many net neutrality advocates are already applauding the move. “These protections – both the 2015 net neutrality rules and the FCC’s authority to protect consumers, promote competition and ensure affordable access in the broadband market, are supported by overwhelming numbers of Americans across the political spectrum,” Gigi Sohn, distinguished fellow at Georgetown and former FCC counselor, said in a statement. “I applaud the bicameral group of lawmakers who introduced this bill for acting to return the Internet to where it belongs - in the hands of Internet users, not broadband providers.”

Congress is also facing more meager neutrality bills that would prohibit predatory behavior without instituting the broad powers of Title II. House Republicans have begun to push their own net neutrality legislation that leaves out the Title I and Title II distinctions entirely. Bills from lawmakers like Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) would prohibit ISPs from blocking or throttling, but it wouldn’t consider internet access a utility or give the FCC the broad authority over ISP regulation like Obama-era rules initially put in place.

Republican leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee criticized Democrats for pushing the Title II distinction. “Republicans and Democrats agree, a free and open internet is fundamental to our society,” Reps. Walden, Bob Latta (R-OH), and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) said. “Right now, without Title II, the internet remains a key driver of economic growth. Let’s come together to ensure that continues, because all sides want a permanent solution. Instead of looking to the extremes, and discarding twenty years of bipartisan consensus, we can come together on shared principles to address blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization.”

Next week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold its second hearing on net neutrality in order to discuss a path forward for the legislation.