Republicans control Congress, after all, and Trump could veto — but Democrats have other plans in mind
Senate Democrats announced on Monday that they’re just one vote short of reviving the U.S. government’s net neutrality rules.
That might sound like a major victory for staunch supporters of the open internet. Not exactly.
The U.S. Congress isn’t actually that much closer to bringing back regulations that require telecom giants like AT&T, Charter, Comcast* and Verizon to treat all web traffic equally. That’s because net neutrality crusaders on Capitol Hill don’t have a solid base of support yet in the House — and certainly aren’t going to win the backing of President Donald Trump.
Recall that the Federal Communications Commission under its Republican leader, Chairman Ajit Pai, spearheaded a vote in December that scrapped the U.S. government’s net neutrality rules. Those safeguards had treated internet service providers like old-school telephone utilities, aiming to stop them from blocking, slowing down or otherwise interfering with web traffic.
Pai’s move left supporters of the open web apoplectic. Companies like Etsy, consumer groups like Free Press and state attorneys general around the country soon threatened to sue. Tech giants like Facebook and Google promised to offer their legal aid, too. And Democratic members of Congress said they would try to undo the FCC’s vote with a vote of their own.
Lawmakers have the power to review, and potentially replace, actions by the FCC and other agencies using a little-known law called the Congressional Review Act. In the Senate, it takes a meager 30 votes to force the chamber to debate an issue like net neutrality, then 51 votes to kill the FCC’s decision.
Democrats crossed the 30-vote threshold last week. And they announced Monday night they had 50 votes in favor of restoring the net neutrality rules that Pai eliminated, just one short of what they need. The leaders of that movement saw that as cause for celebration.
“There is a tsunami of Congressional and grassroots support to overturn the FCC’s partisan and misguided decision on net neutrality,” said Sen. Ed Markey, who is leading the charge.
But that milestone never really was in doubt. Democrats boast 49 votes in the chamber, after all, a tally that includes independents like Sen. Bernie Sanders. As expected, they’re sticking together and backing an effort to revive net neutrality protections. Helping them reach 50 votes is one Republican lawmaker, Sen. Susan Collins, who’s previously criticized the FCC for ignoring Americans’ strong views about the open internet.
Things will be different in the House. There, Democrats have 193 votes; they typically need 216 to prevail. Even if they do somehow succeed, though, their proposal would then require the sign off of the president, who has publicly called net neutrality rules an “attack on the internet.” Of course, Congress could try again, aiming to override Trump’s veto. But that would require even more, harder-to-find votes.
Put more succinctly, the news Monday means everything and nothing. Democrats are one small step closer to net neutrality in the Senate, and many large, potentially insurmountable steps away from actually restoring those rules.
For party leaders, though, a loss might still be its own sort of win. Democrats believe net neutrality is a debate that might drive votes — especially millennials — to show up at the ballot box come November. So even if lawmakers fail to restore the U.S. government’s open internet rules in the coming weeks, they hope can leverage it to win something bigger: more seats in Congress.
Or, more votes for the next net neutrality debate.
“When we force a vote on this bill,” stressed Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, “Republicans in Congress will – for the first time — have the opportunity to right the administration’s wrong and show the American people whose side they’re on: big ISPs and major corporations or consumers, entrepreneurs and small business owners.”
* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.