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House Republicans on Wednesday introduced a resolution of disapproval seeking to overturn the Federal Communications Commission's controversial net neutrality rules, delivering on a threat the incoming leadership of the Energy and Commerce Committee first leveled on the same day in December the agency approved its order.
Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) announced the resolution today at the panel's first oversight hearing of the FCC, a proceeding that saw sharply conflicting testimony from the agency's five members.
The move comes as the latest procedural maneuver GOP lawmakers are pursuing to block regulations they argue will curb innovation and investment in the fast-growing Internet sector, and that were enacted against the will of a majority of Congress and in the face of a court order that ruled against the FCC's authority over broadband providers.
Just yesterday, Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the chairman of the Internet subcommittee that convened today's hearing, offered an amendment to the continuing resolution for the fiscal 2011 budget currently under debate that would bar the FCC from using appropriated money to enact its net neutrality rules.
At today's hearing, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski pushed back against Republican criticisms that the agency acted outside of its legal authority, and disputed the charge that the order would entail stifling government regulation of the Internet.
"I understand that some people think this framework doesn't go far enough. Others think it goes too far. I believe it gets it about right -- a light-touch approach consistent with the FCC's history of bipartisan action on this issue," Genachowski said.
"For years there's been a war in this space between the infrastructure companies on one side and the innovation-technology companies on the other side. What we worked very hard to do over this process is to say, 'Hey, look, the gap isn't that large.'"
Some committee Democrats noted that historic foes of net neutrality rules such as Comcast and AT&T issued statements indicating that the new rules represent a workable compromise. But Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell pointed out that those were hardly "ringing endorsements," and the FCC's rules are already facing legal challenges brought by Verizon and wireless provider Metro PCS.
"Whatever appellate court reviews it, ultimately I think it will fail on appeal," McDowell said.
Should lawmakers' effort to overturn the FCC's net neutrality rules clear the House, it will face a much tougher road in the Senate and potentially the prospect of a veto by President Obama, who has endorsed the agency's move. But the short-term procedural measures in play that aim to derail the FCC's most recent order would still leave the agency's net neutrality authority in question, a matter that will likely next pass to the courts.
Genachowski today reiterated support for resuming legislative talks to clarify the FCC's mandate, a process that derailed last year in the Energy and Commerce Committee, then under the chairmanship of Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), after Republicans withdrew support.
"The single best way to have clarity and certainty here would be for Congress to look at the statute, update it in a way that is appropriate," Genachowski said.
The FCC was dealt a major blow last April, when a federal appeals court struck down a 2008 commission order punishing Comcast for secretly blocking traffic on its network. In that decision, the court ruled that the FCC lacked the statutory authority to enforce an open Internet policy statement. Verizon is seeking to have the same court hear its challenge to the new rules.
Republican lawmakers pressed Genachowski on the new legal argument the agency will present when Verizon's case comes to court, and castigated what they described as a broad overreach in the open Internet order they said could pave the way for all manner of harmful regulations.
"The tether has been snapped," Walden said. Commissioner McDowell echoed that concern, telling the panel that "there's no limiting principle in the order that would restrain the commission."
Genachowski persisted in his defense of the rules as a compromise, saying he has no intention of intervening in areas of the market beyond basic nondiscrimination and transparency rules for service providers. He told the panel he would not involve the commission in areas such as rate regulation, and suggested that commercial disputes about peering agreements, such as the current feud between Level 3 and Comcast, should be left to the private parties to resolve.
The FCC approved the net neutrality rules Dec. 21 by a three-to-two vote along party lines.