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By Kyle Daly
July 6 — Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune is eyeing a broad overhaul of communications law next year—regardless of which party is in control on Capitol Hill.
“I think it's time for Congress to be heard from on all these issues,” the South Dakota Republican told reporters July 6. “I hope next year, if we [Republicans] are in the majority, I'd like to do an update—do a modernization act.”
Thune said, however, that even if Democrats regain Senate control in the November elections, he believes lawmakers may still move to revamp the Communications Act.
“Even among Democrats, there is a belief that certainty is really important,” Thune said.
Lawmakers and communications policy insiders have talked about the prospect of a major update to the Communications Act for years. Any such update would be a heavy legislative lift likely addressing technologies such as wireline and wireless broadband that didn't exist the last time Congress overhauled the law in 1996.
The Communications Act was originally enacted in 1934. Thune said the age of the statute underlying the Federal Communications Commission's authority and a rash of legal challenges to FCC decisions in recent years have created a “cloud of uncertainty” around communications regulation.
Thune said he believes Democrats are “pretty happy with the status quo” and the actions of the current FCC and courts ruling on FCC challenges. Still, Thune said, there could be bipartisan consensus around an update, though it may take considerable time and effort to come to fruition.
“I'm sure the policy would probably be very different under a Democrat majority than it might be under a Republican majority, but anything that comes out of our committee and comes to the floor and makes it out of here, as you know, has got to have some bipartisan support,” Thune said. ”Updating the act would probably involve a lot of give and take, trying to find that middle ground that enables us to get something enacted, and I know how hard it's going to be. The '96 act was enormously difficult, and you had a lot fewer moving parts then than you do now.”
Thune's House counterparts began discussing the possibility of a Communications Act update right after a June appeals court ruling affirming the FCC's net neutrality rules.
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a senior House Energy and Commerce Committee member, said then that the decision underscored the need for a Communications Act update. Walden, chairman of the panel's Communications and Technology Subcommittee—and Shimkus' main rival for the gavel of the full committee in the next Congress—said updating the act had been Energy and Commerce's top priority until the battle over net neutrality sidelined those plans.
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