Last gasp: Net neutrality activists scramble for votes in Congress

As time gets short to force action in the House, pressure mounts on telecom-backed Democrats.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read

Newly elected Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota arrive for the 116th Congress. Scanlon, a Democrat, is being targeted by net neutrality activists for refusing to sign a Congressional Review Act discharge petition that could be used to reinstate net neutrality regulation.  

Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images

Net neutrality supporters are turning up the heat on a small number of Congressional Democrats who haven't yet thrown their support behind a measure to reinstate Obama-era net neutrality rules by the end of the year.

The effort comes as pro-net neutrality lawmakers try to use a legislative loophole known as the Congressional Review Act to overturn the FCC's repeal of the popular net neutrality rules adopted in 2015. They need to get a majority of House of Representative members, 218, to sign on to the petition to force a vote on the House floor.

The current tally of supporters is at 180 members, all of whom are Democrats. That means 38 more members are needed to force a vote. And of that number, 17 are Democrats who have yet to sign on.

Last week, the grassroots group Fight for the Future launched a website called DemsAgainstThe.Net, to shame these Democrats, who they claim have each received political donations from broadband companies and have been "putting telecom giants' interests ahead of their constituents."

Watch this: FCC's Ajit Pai: Net neutrality repeal helps rural broadband

One member activists have targeted is Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, who was sworn in after a special election in November. Scanlon had previously signaled her general support for net neutrality in posts on Facebook and Twitter.

On Monday, she posted a video on her Facebook page explaining why she wouldn't sign the CRA petition in spite of receiving numerous calls from constituents. In the video, she called the measure "an arcane congressional maneuver." Instead, she said she supports congressional legislation to institute net neutrality protections.

Fight for the Future points out that Scanlon has received $45,100 in donations from Comcast.

"It's hard to think of a more nauseatingly clear example of the corrupting influence of telecom money in our democracy," said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future. "These Democrats have no excuse: their constituents want them to support real net neutrality and the entire rest of their party has already done so."

Deadline extended

Monday, Dec. 10  was supposed to be the deadline for the House to gather enough signatures to force the CRA vote. The CRA gives the House and Senate set periods of time to undo recently enacted federal regulations.

The Senate passed its CRA resolution in May. The House has until the end of the year to pass its resolution. Then it must be signed by President Donald Trump to take effect, which many believe is unlikely given Trump's penchant for reducing federal regulation.

Due to the rules in the House about when such petitions can be filed and because many had expected the 2018 Congress to end its session in early December, many believed that Dec. 10 would be the deadline for the House CRA to get a vote.

But thanks to the showdown between Democrats in Congress and Trump over a federal spending resolution to keep the government open, the 2018 Congress will likely be in session until at least Dec. 21, which is the new deadline for passing funding legislation. This gives net neutrality supporters more time to gather the 218 signatures needed to force a vote on the House floor, said a Democratic congressional aide who didn't want to be named.

"Americans across the country, regardless of party, want and deserve strong net neutrality protections," he said. "If 218 members agree that the CRA needs to be addressed this year, there are procedural mechanisms that can force a vote in the House."

The FCC's decision at this time last year to repeal the net neutrality rules has pitted internet service providers like AT&T and Comcast against internet companies such as Facebook, Google and Mozilla, as well as average internet users.  Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, regardless of whether it involves checking Facebook, posting pictures to Instagram, or streaming movies from Netflix or Amazon. Supporters of net neutrality say the internet as we know it may not exist much longer without the protections, but critics have said the rules stifled investment.

Supporters of the CRA to reinstate net neutrality acknowledge it's an uphill battle that they're likely to lose. But they say they aren't giving up hope. Fight for the Future organized its last online day of action in late November to get sites like Reddit and Airbnb, along with individuals, to contact congressional leaders to support the measure.

Fight for the Future's Greer has said that the issue is still gaining support among lawmakers. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat from Florida, and Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, each signed on to the net neutrality CRA discharge petition on Monday. Their support came after Rep. Joseph Morelle, a Democrat from New York, signed the petition on Nov. 30.  

Still, supporters are likely to come up short. Regardless of what happens with the CRA, they say the fight for net neutrality is far from over. Several states, including California, have passed their own laws to protect net neutrality. The battle also rages on in the courts as supporters challenge the repeal. There's also the possibility that a new Congress will draft new legislation to protect net neutrality.

"We're entering 2019 in a strong position on the issue," Greer said in an email. "The FCC repeal sparked an unprecedented cross-partisan backlash, and we've channeled that Internet outrage into real political power."

She said her group and others will continue to fight at the state and federal levels and in the courts.

"Net neutrality will be the law of the land again," she said. "It's only a matter of time."

First published on Dec. 10 at 3:31 p.m. PT.
Update, Dec. 12 at 12:11 p.m. PT: Added information from a Facebook video published by Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon and the names of additional House members who've signed on to the CRA.

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