WASHINGTON — Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), an outspoken critic of Internet regulations and a rising star in the Republican Party, on Tuesday predicted that the new Congress would overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s open Internet order, and then proceed with legislation that would set explicit limits on the agency’s authority over broadband providers.
Speaking at the annual conference hosted by the nonpartisan Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus, Blackburn outlined in broad strokes a conservative tech policy agenda for the new session, which in addition to curbing what she sees as regulatory overreach, also includes efforts on a variety of fronts to protect intellectual property rights, including patent and copyright reform.
But Blackburn has made the fight against net neutrality a signature issue, including legislation introduced earlier this year that would overturn the FCC’s December order in her first act of the new Congress.
In her remarks today, Blackburn acknowledged that the FCC’s action came only after negotiations on Capitol Hill failed to broker a compromise, and that the issues of net neutrality and the broader question of FCC authority will remain unsettled in the absence of congressional action.
“I think it is fair to say that congressional Republicans and Democrats are a little bit to blame for this. Too few members have engaged seriously on net neutrality,” she said. “When Congress fails to move forward on an issue, bureaucracies step in.”
At the same time, Blackburn characterized the FCC’s December vote as a misguided step that will impose unnecessary regulations on a fast-growing industry, dismissing the concerns of net neutrality proponents as a “hypothetical problem,” and calling for the need to “defend against Washington’s instinct to hyper-regulate.”
“I think that what they may have met with is a congressional hurricane,” she said. “We must see the latest regulatory impulse of the FCC as the wake-up call that it is.”
She added, “Incumbent now for us to immediately reverse the decision and better define the FCC’s jurisdiction.”
Blackburn serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which is planning to hold a series of oversight hearings that will likely air harsh indictments of the FCC’s action from many Republican members, who almost universally oppose the net neutrality measure.
But Blackburn predicted that many Democrats will join in the effort to rein in the FCC, saying she expects her bill, which already has more than 60 co-sponsors, to easily pass the House, suggesting, perhaps hopefully, that it could also clear the Senate.
Of course, Senate passage will be a harder proposition, both owing to the sustained — albeit slimmer — Democratic majority, and to the procedural rules that have bottled up copious amounts of legislation referred by the House.
“The Senate is a black hole. You can pass anything out of the House,” Tom Davis, a former congressman from Virginia who now serves as Deloitte’s director of federal government affairs, said in a panel discussion following Blackburn’s keynote address.
But Blackburn also appealed to an audience of technology industry representatives, lobbyists government staffers and others to move past the “stylized” conception of Republicans and Democrats that sees one party kowtowing to the interests of business while the other consistently pursues restrictive regulation and government intrusion into the private sector.
While net neutrality has historically been a largely partisan issue, Blackburn said she also hopes to advance other planks of a tech policy agenda that could see members reach across the aisle, including online privacy and intellectual property protections, both of which have engendered bipartisan support in recent sessions.
Blackburn called for comprehensive patent reform legislation, for instance. Just last week, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs that chamber’s Judiciary Committee, announced that he would again lead the charge to enact similar reform, working with Republican members in both the House and Senate, as he has in the past.
Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.