House Panel Seeks Common Ground on FCC Process Amid Net Neutrality Rift

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By Lydia Beyoud

April 13 — With significant legislative action stalled in congressional committees due to partisan differences and the growing focus on 2016 presidential bids, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is looking to move forward incrementally with its overhaul of the nation’s communications laws by finding common ground on reauthorizing the agency that carries out those laws—the FCC.

“If you want to look at policy areas that need to be updated in the Communications Act, the place to start is by reforming the agency itself. You can’t have a 21st century regulatory policy without a 21st century regulator,” David Redl, senior counsel to the House Commerce majority, said April 13.

Speaking at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas, senior Republican and Democratic committee staffers said updating the Federal Communications Commission’s processes and transparency practices is an area ripe for momentum.

However, while there may be some consensus gained from work in previous congressional sessions on the broad strokes of transparency and process changes, Democrats are concerned by provisions of a draft FCC reauthorization bill proposed by committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), said Margaret McCarthy, permanent staffer for the committee minority and an adviser to ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.).

Proposed changes to the Universal Service Fund are of particular concern to committee members from rural states, McCarthy said. Federal USF subsidies help ensure that rural and low-income communities have access to telecommunications services that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive to deploy in such areas.

The FCC has been under scrutiny for management of the program, which is broadly believed to be ridden with fraud and dysfunction.

Upton’s draft FCC Reauthorization Act of 2015 proposes to freeze the agency's current funding at $339.84 million for fiscal years 2016 to 2020 and would cap the USF budget at $9 billion through FY 2017.

Statutory Mandates

The FCC’s practice of forgoing certain statutory mandates in favor of pursuing “other more expedient issues at the commission” has caused deep concern for committee Republicans, said Redl.

He noted that Congress has yet to receive a quadrennial report on media ownership rules for 2010, and that instead the FCC is focused on completing its review for 2014.

House Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) “has been very clear that he wants to see the quadrennial review finished, he wants to see the media ownership rules updated,” said Redl.

Making the FCC “a more predictable place to do business” is a core part of the committee’s transparency push, he said.

Net Neutrality

The FCC’s action on net neutrality has emerged as one of the major dividing lines between the two parties in their effort to update the Communications Act of 1934. Upon publication of the FCC’s Open Internet order in the Federal Register on April 13, the USTelecom Association immediately announced it was filing suit over the rules for being arbitrary and capricious and a violation of federal law.

Though the committee’s Republicans staunchly opposed the FCC’s decision to reclassify wired and mobile broadband Internet services as common carriers under Title II of the act, the lawsuit shouldn’t change members’ dedication to writing bipartisan legislation that takes core net neutrality principles into account, Redl said.

Different paths could be taken on such legislation in both the House and Senate Commerce committees, Redl said.

“There are areas of broad agreement” for a Communications Act update that shouldn’t be impacted by a split over net neutrality laws, particularly on spectrum issues, he said.

“That’s an area where I think we can focus going forward as a way to keep the ball rolling on ‘Comm Act update’ while we try to figure out some of the more difficult pieces,” Redl said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Las Vegas at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com