Yesterday, in a move that took a few people by surprise, the Senate voted 52-47 in favor of a bill that would reverse last year’s contentious decision by the Federal Communications Commission to undo the 2015 net neutrality rules. One of the cosponsors of the bill was Sen. Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, and ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees the FCC.
The bill uses the Congressional Review Act to overturn rules recently put in place by a federal agency. Although the bill has passed the Senate, it will also have to be passed by the House, where Republicans have a more significant majority, and then be signed into law by the President. BGR spoke to Senator Schatz to get his thoughts on the vote, and where net neutrality goes from here.
Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity
BGR: Were you surprised by the relative ease that the CRA bill passed the Senate?
Sen. Schatz: Well, you never know until these things go to the vote, but we’d been in contact with Senator Kennedy and Senator Murkowski before the vote, so although you never know until the vote happens, we had warning that we might have exceeded people’s expectations.
BGR: What do you think the odds are now of getting a bill through the House, or even getting it a vote?
Sen Schatz: I don’t know, but put it this way: we haven’t had so much momentum in a while. And the reason we have this momentum is not that we’ve stumbled upon some new legislative strategy, but rather because of an army of internet users across the country that are demanding that we do the right thing. So I would encourage people now to switch their attention to calling their representatives in the House and trying to get something happening there. But all eyes are on the House right now. There are dozens of members who are going to a general election cycle wanting to provide evidence of their independence. Net neutrality is a perfect opportunity for Republicans to show that they’re willing to break from the party line.
BGR: In the past, the Republicans have said repeatedly that their preferred method of doing anything is to pass a bipartisan “net neutrality” bill. And you said in the past as well that you’d be open to legislation specifically addressing net neutrality. What would your legislative solution look like now, and are you still interested in working on that angle?
Sen. Schatz: You know I’m a member of the Commerce Committee and therefore I think the best place to make telecommunications policy is on the committee and not at the FCC. [00:02:35][8.8]
I supported legislating when we had a Democratic FCC, and I support legislating now that it’s in the other party’s hands. But the details very much matter and what is currently being offered is net neutrality ‘lite’. It provides for some good things in the statute, but then it prohibits the FCC from making any rules to implement that statute. This would be the only part of Telecommunications Act where the FCC doesn’t have true enforcement authority. So it just wouldn’t work. That being said, if they want to enshrine current net neutrality rules into a statute, I’m fine with that. But if they want to use the prospect of legislating as an excuse to do nothing on the CRA, I’m not here for that.
BGR: So let’s say that people’s expectations keep on being beaten, and the CRA goes all the way through. Given the current makeup of the FCC, would you be optimistic that net neutrality principles would actually be enforced?
Sen Schatz: Well the FCC has some discretion but they still would have to follow the law, and as long as that order is the law, they will be duty bound to enforce it. So you know do I agree with the FCC generally? Not recently, but they only have so much discretion in this area.