In Wake of Net Neutrality, Republicans Take Aim at FCC’s Budget

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The draft bill has sparked a partisan clash that could derail attempts to find a compromise on Internet regulation.

Less than a month after the Federal Communications Commission approved controversial net-neutrality regulations, congressional Republicans are looking to overhaul the agency's budget and procedures.

GOP lawmakers don't say their planned legislation is revenge for the Internet regulations that they despise. But the FCC's questionable handling of net neutrality is a good example of why Congress should take a comprehensive look at how the agency does business, they argue.

Draft legislation floated by Republican Rep. Greg Walden, the chairman of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, would flatline the FCC's budget (despite its request for a major increase) and would remove the FCC chairman's ability to hire or fire the agency's inspector general. It would also cap the size of the Universal Service Fund—the agency's subsidy for phone and Internet service—and would subject the fund to the regular congressional appropriations process.

"It's becoming more and more evident to me that this is an agency that is overreaching with its regulatory and spending authority, and one way to stanch the bleeding is to get back to basics: being accountable to the authorizing and appropriating committees of Congress," Walden said in a speech Thursday at conference hosted by the Free State Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"The FCC is a child of Congress, and it is our job to make sure they are within their authority and that they are spending consumer dollars wisely and within a budget," the Oregon Republican said. It's been nearly 25 years since Congress last reauthorized the FCC, he noted.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, also plans to push similar reauthorization legislation to Walden's.

House Democrats ripped into the draft bill during a hearing Thursday, warning it would hamstring the agency's ability to do its job.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, the subcommittee's top Democrat, argued that the draft would "squeeze an agency that is already operating at the lowest number of full-time staff in 30 years."

The California lawmaker insisted, "The FCC must have the means to fulfill its mission to protect consumers, promote competition, and advance innovation."

Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat who is the ranking member of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, said he has "yet to hear a convincing explanation for why this legislation is a good idea."

"Given what we just went through with the Department of Homeland Security, I doubt our constituents are clamoring for us to create another funding cliff," he warned. "This agency is too important to play these types of games with its funding."

The Democrats complained that the Republican leadership had given them only two days to review the draft bill before the hearing.

"If these tactics are emblematic of how this committee will be run going forward, we may have to readjust our expectations about the next two years," Pallone warned.

The partisan clash threatens to poison discussions on compromise net-neutrality legislation. Republicans are desperate to undo the FCC's decision, and they recognize that they'll need substantial Democratic support if they hope to get a bill into law. They offered a draft bill in January that would've enshrined net-neutrality protections into law while also repealing other FCC authorities over the Internet.

Pallone reiterated that he is open to discussing net-neutrality legislation but warned that "after what has taken place over the past few days, I wonder if bipartisanship may only be in the eye of the beholder."