Too little, too late. That’s the feeling one gets in studying the flurry of Republican responses to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposed net neutrality rules. With the rules up for vote Feb. 26, Republicans have little time left to mount an offensive — but that hasn’t stopped them from making some last-minute moves. Here is a small snapshot of the efforts:
— FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, one of two Republicans on the FCC and appointed to the commission by President Obama, has come out as a forceful voice against the proposed regulations. He photographed himself with the 300-plus-page document and slammed the plan as “massive intrusion in the Internet economy” and “a monumental shift toward government control of the Internet,” according to The Hill. Noting that countries around the world are watching what the U.S. does with its internet policy, Pai argued that the FCC’s rules could have the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for the US to fight for a fair and free internet abroad. Pai even took the rare step of hosting his own press conference on the matter.
— FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly also published his critique of the plan. O’Rielly is, along with Pai, a Republican and is opposed to net neutrality rules as laid out by the FCC chairman. In his own words: “I am troubled by statements that the Net Neutrality item will grant broad forbearance from Title II, and I feel compelled to respond to these claims. The promised forbearance amounts to fauxbearance. The FCC fact sheet clearly states that the item leaves in place more than a dozen provisions that are central to common carrier regulation. … The FCC fact sheet promises the certainty of 'bright line rules,' but instead raises many more questions than answers.”
— Republicans have initiated an investigation into the president’s November call for the reclassification of the Internet under Title II, which they contend amounted to undue influence over the FCC, an independent agency. They point to the fact Wheeler seemed to be moving away from reclassification for most of last year, but that his proposal now includes it.
— Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., has called for a delay in the FCC ruling, citing allegations of collusion between the White House and the FCC. “Chairman Wheeler should delay the FCC Net Neutrality vote scheduled for Feb. 26," said Blackburn. “There is much at stake, as Title II regulations will lead to billions of dollars in new fees and taxes. The seriousness of these allegations require Chairman Wheeler’s attention beyond a mere statement or press release in order to assure the public that the FCC was not unduly influenced by the White House.”
— At the "rebooting Congress" conference, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., stated his preference that net neutrality rules be established through the legislative process. “I think despite what you think of the legislative process, it is much more open, greater debate, and you get challenged on both sides. That is the way we deal with the issues,” he said, as reported by The Hill. He also offered his side’s help on pushing legislation through Congress to do just that.
— Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, continued his comparisons of net neutrality to Obamacare, a comparison that has been widely panned.
— Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., announced legislation that would force the FCC to release the regulations before they come up for a vote among the commissioners Feb. 26. The FCC chairman has already indicated that he would not do this, and further, that doing so would break precedence for similar regulatory efforts.
— And finally, Sen. John Thune, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, has prepared his own net neutrality legislation — and claimed that the FCC had “discouraged” Hill Democrats from collaborating on his bill.
In the face of all this, it’s worth bearing in mind that net neutrality is hardly a new issue. For a half decade, the effort has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the FCC and the judicial system. Last year, Wheeler signaled his intention to get the job done at long last, and President Obama added fuel to the fire with his November endorsement of the strongest rules possible.
Which is all to say that the Republicans action on this issue could be, at best, ineffective and, at worst, damaging to the GOP brand. Remember: Net neutrality polls well. Last November, the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication poll found that about 81 percent of respondents opposed allowing ISPs to establish “fast lanes;” that is, charging sites and services a premium for speed.
The support is bipartisan, and what’s more, Republicans in the poll supported net neutrality by a slightly higher margin than Democrats. (This represents a striking change from only years ago. In 2010, a Rasmussen poll found limited support for net neutrality, with only one in five likely voters backing regulation and more than half opposing.)
The FCC’s net neutrality rules look all but certain to pass, and two weeks of Republican outrage may do the party more harm than good. For conservatives concerned about the FCC’s overreach and the potentially damaging consequences of Title II regulation, the judicial branch may the only mechanism left to prevent Wheeler and the FCC from fulfilling their ambitions.