Republicans Attack the FCC Over Net Neutrality, Other Core Programs

Republican lawmakers voted to slash the FCC’s budget and cripple its agenda.

Jul 13 2016, 1:41pm

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (right). Image: U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers/Flickr

Republican lawmakers squared off against Federal Communications Commission officials during a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, just days after voting to kneecap federal net neutrality rules ensuring that all content on the internet is equally accessible.

During a heated three-hour session, GOP lawmakers grilled the five FCC commissioners about a range of agency initiatives, including proposals to increase competition in the cable set-top box market, strengthen broadband privacy protections, and expand federal Lifeline subsidies to include mobile broadband.

The hearing was just the latest skirmish in an escalating battle between the FCC, which is controlled by a 3-2 Democratic majority, and Republicans lawmakers who have characterized the agency's consumer-driven agenda as regulatory overreach carried out by a cadre of unelected bureaucrats.

Last month, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the FCC's landmark net neutrality policy, in a major victory for public interest groups and a stinging defeat for broadband industry giants and their GOP allies in Congress. Public interest groups say the FCC's policy is necessary to maintain the internet as an open platform for free speech, economic growth, and civic empowerment.

Republican lawmakers responded last week by voting to slash the FCC's budget by $69 million as part of the House 2017 financial services appropriations bill. The legislation also contains controversial "riders" preventing the agency from enforcing the net neutrality policy or moving ahead with the proposed set-top box and broadband privacy reforms.

Public interest groups and consumer advocates responded with fury to the bill, which was approved by the GOP-controlled House along party lines. (The Senate has yet to send its corresponding appropriations measure to the floor for a full vote.)

"Republicans in Congress need to stop listening to phone and cable company lobbyists and abandon their assault on the open internet," Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press Action Fund, said in a statement. "The representatives behind these riders need to grow up and stop playing games with budget bills."

President Obama has made clear his intention to veto the appropriations bill if it contains riders that undermine the FCC or other government agencies. The White House "strongly objects to the inclusion of problematic ideological provisions that are beyond the scope of funding legislation," according to a statement of administration policy released by the Office of Management and Budget.

During Tuesday's hearing, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, took aim at the FCC's proposal to break the cable industry's lock on the set-top box market, which forces most consumers to rent these so-called "navigation devices" for an average of $231 per year, pouring an estimated $20 billion into the coffers of Comcast and other industry giants.

The cable companies aren't thrilled about losing this particular cash-cow, and have pushed back vigorously against the FCC's proposal, which would require them to make their channels and on-demand programming available to third-party device manufacturers. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has argued that injecting competition into the market would lower set-top box prices and spur innovation.

The cable industry says the FCC's proposal would jeopardize the intellectual property of "content creators." In a tense series of exchanges Tuesday, Blackburn—a major recipient of cable industry campaign contributions—unsuccessfully attempted to goad Wheeler into acknowledging that the agency's proposal would render content "worthless." The FCC chairman wouldn't take the bait.

Kate Forscey, government affairs associate counsel at Public Knowledge, assailed the GOP attempt to undermine the FCC's set-top box reform proposal using budget riders. "These provisions are an industry giveaway to Big Cable, blessing its ongoing practice of needlessly robbing consumers of billions of dollars and stifling innovation in the video marketplace for the foreseeable future," Forscey said in a statement.

House Republicans have also targeted the FCC's plan to expand the Reagan-era Lifeline phone subsidy program to include aid designed to help low-income people afford mobile broadband access.

Public interest groups say the plan could help close the nation's persistent "digital divide." But GOP lawmakers have tried to undermine Lifeline by claiming that the program is rife with as much as $500 million in annual "waste, fraud and abuse" as a result of duplicate applications. (By law, Lifeline benefits are limited to one per household.)

During Tuesday's hearing, Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat who is the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, unveiled a Democratic staff report that casts doubt on Republican claims that Lifeline is riddled with fraud.

Pallone's report found that many of the supposedly fraudulent "duplicate" Lifeline applications cited by Republicans are actually received from legitimate low-income applicants living at "multi-resident addresses"—including veterans group homes, nursing homes, and homeless shelters.

At the hearing, FCC Chairman Wheeler produced statistics showing that there are some 2.2 million low-income Lifeline subscribers nationwide who live at these multiple-resident addresses. Such locations include the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, the Louisville Rescue Mission, the Roanoke Rescue Mission, and the Associated Ministries of Tacoma, according to Wheeler.

"This perpetual criminalization of the poor must come to an end," Jessica González, general counsel at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said in a statement in response to Pallone's report. "We have to ensure that no needy family is turned away from the essential services provided to them by the Lifeline program."

Last month, Democrats beat back a Republican effort to kill Lifeline mobile subsidies and set a hard budget cap on the program, which public interest advocates say could have dangerous consequences during an economic downturn or after a natural disaster, when the number of people needing Lifeline aid could surge dramatically.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, blasted the GOP's ongoing effort to undermine the Lifeline program, which helps more than 10 million low-income Americans afford communications access, as a "source of shame."

"Whether it's an attempt to put an artificial cap on the fund or legislation to outright strip support for mobile phone service, I think the message is very clear," said Eshoo. "The majority is willing to rip away life-saving communications tools from our most vulnerable citizens."