House Appropriators Target FCC, but Threats May Be Empty


FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler 


It’s the stuff headlines are made of: House advances bill to block the Federal Communications Commission from regulating net neutrality! But if the past is a guide, the FCC shouldn’t be too worried about a draft federal agency budget-setting bill the House Appropriations Committee approved June 9.

The panel’s draft financial services bill would cut the FCC’s budget in fiscal 2017, both year-over-year and as compared to the agency’s budget request, while also blocking it from implementing several hotly contested rules and proposals.

Lawmakers wrote provisions that would make the FCC publish the text of new rules at least 21 days before a vote; hold off on implementing its 2015 net neutrality rules until pending court challenges are resolved; forbear from regulating broadband rates; and press pause on its proposal to open the pay TV set-top box market to third parties until an academic institution can complete a peer-reviewed study on potential effects.

If the first three of those sound familiar, it’s because the same provisions appeared, word for word, in the FCC-relevant appropriations bill the House passed in 2015. By a final bill on agency spending got through the Senate and to President Barack Obama’s desk, all of those provisions, written by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, had vanished.

In 2014, the House passed spending legislation that would have blocked the FCC from preempting state laws against municipal broadband networks. It would have also required the agency to both look within and cooperate with other federal agencies to eliminate regulations deemed outmoded, burdensome or redundant. In 2013, the equivalent bill would have dropped certain Universal Service Fund protections that have been extended annually for many years. In every case, those provisions were stripped out before the agency’s appropriation was enacted.

To be sure, House-originated restrictions on, or directives to, the FCC do sometimes survive as appropriations measures become law. Last year, for instance, consolidated appropriations legislation managed to grandfather in, for at least a decade, joint sales agreements between broadcast TV stations that existed before a 2014 FCC order limiting them (the order has since been vacated and remanding back to the FCC at least until it conducts a long-overdue review of media ownership rules).

This year’s set-top box provision will likely be one to watch, given that congressional opposition to the set-top box proposal has been widespread and broadly bipartisan.

But for the most hot-button, strictly partisan issues to which Obama would be staunchly opposed — halting net neutrality enforcement, for example — history suggests that lawmakers aren’t inclined to push things too far.