Net neutrality is saved in Senate vote! No, not really, it was a giant waste of everyone's time
Republicans at least argue for bipartisan legislation – so sort-of progress?
The US Senate has voted to scrap an effort to get rid of America's net neutrality rules, providing a small but ultimately worthless victory in what has increasingly become a partisan topic in Washington DC.
The vote was heavily pushed by Democratic senators who have known for weeks they were one vote short for the resolution of "disapproval" under the Congressional Review Act (CRA).
But following several days of campaigning on the issue, three Republican senators were ultimately persuaded to vote in favor of the proposal – Susan Collins (R-ME), John Kennedy (R-LA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) – which was approved 52 votes to 47 and will now move to the House for review.
While net neutrality advocates celebrated the result, the unfortunate truth is that the vote was largely a waste of energy, taking up hours of the Senate's time to achieve a result that will almost certainly be defeated in the House of Representatives.
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But with many feeling so passionately about the issue, the fact that it amounted to the exact sort of political grandstanding that people would normally condemn, was ignored in order to relish the moment.
The hours of debate that preceded the vote were also largely worthless with senators simply reiterating the same arguments that have been put forward for months, sometimes years, on the topic.
The futile nature of the vote was repeatedly and explicitly referenced by Senator John Thune (R-SD) who called it a "fake argument that is going nowhere."
Instead he urged his colleagues to "get serious" and work on bipartisan legislation that would introduce net neutrality protections in law, rather than rely on rules written by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that can then be rewritten by the next FCC administration – which is exactly what happened in this case with current FCC chair Ajit Pai reversing rules pushed through by his predecessor.
Thune noted that he was "more than willing to enter into a debate to perfect this piece of legislation" rather than "waste more time, valuable time, in a cloud of uncertainty where one FCC to the next continues to change the rules."
The CRA vote was simply "prolonging a period of uncertainty" he argued and causing ISPs to put money into lawyers and litigation rather than innovation and infrastructure.
For his part, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer said he was willing to work on bipartisan legislation but that the CRA vote was needed to keep the current rules in place and protect American consumers until that new law was put in place.
Both Thune and Schumer alluded to the fact that net neutrality is popular with voters, with Thune painting the vote as an "attempt to gain partisan advantage" because "people seem to think will be useful in the upcoming election."
Schumer didn’t deny it – he repeatedly pointed to the fact that a vote would enable Democrats to say who had voted on the record against blocking the repeal effort.
The actual value of being able to say someone voted against net neutrality in an election is likely to be minimal given the much broader range of topics that senators consider and the fact that very few senate seats are at risk of changing hands.
But in a deadlocked Washington DC that feeds off incremental shifts, the vote was responsible for a small earth tremor, albeit one that will be swiftly forgotten when the next artificial showdown is instigated.
As for the CRA resolution's next steps: it will now go the House of Representatives, and net neutrality advocates are already gearing up to campaign aggressively there in the hope it can get voters to call their representatives and cause enough of a fuss that some of them will vote for the resolution.
That effort is almost certainly doomed to fail, but even if by some miracle it does pass through the Republican-dominated House, it would then fall to President Trump to sign. And he has been a vocal critic of the rules that the measure seeks to retain, so that approval is even less likely.
Democrats are indeed guilty of stretching out the repeal effort to serve political ends, and may even be hoping to keep net neutrality out of new legislation in the hope that they can do exactly the same thing that the FCC has done this time but in reverse under a new administration.
At some point, however, there does need to be a legislative solution to what has become an unnecessary partisan impasse on an issue of critical national importance.
Thune argued that the main components of net neutrality – a ban on blocking, throttling and paid prioritization – already had broad approval and so Congress should move forward with plans to draft them into the law.
But, of course, those on the far right and far left want looser and stricter rules respectively. In a functioning Congress, the center would be able to find agreement through compromise and enough votes to put an end to the damaging policy ping-pong that net neutrality has becomes.
But that's not where Washington is, or has been for years now, so we can expect to see many more pointless and unedifying examples of Congressional self-regarding one-upmanship on this topic before a solution is finally reached. ®