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Wednesday, November 8, 2006

The 2006 Election and Net Neutrality
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I received an e-mail late last night from a scholar in Europe wondering if we'll be hearing more about network neutrality in the next Congress as a result of Democratic gains there. Short answer: yes. But it's really more complicated than that. I'd invite readers to share their own speculation on what will happen with NN in the next Congress in the comments field below; above that field I'll share my own thoughts.

First, a down-and-dirty handicapping. We know the Dems have the House. House Telecom Subcommittee Chairman Markey (D-Mass.) will delight in regaining his old title after such a long wait and will introduce net neutrality legislation, either stand-alone or as part of a larger bill. Full Committee Chairman Dingell (D-Mich.), who never really accepted his move to the minority, will find the votes to clear it out of committee. It will be up to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.) whether it gets a floor vote and party endorsement; let's see, she's a liberal from San Francisco whose husband became wealthy thanks to Silicon Valley investments and who has Google, Yahoo! and eBay right down the street. The bill clears the House.

If the Senate splits and adopts a 2001-style power-sharing arrangement, I think a net neutrality bill also gets out of Senate Commerce; it's almost guaranteed if the Dems win both Virginia and Montana and take the majority. But does it clear the full Senate? My old boss Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has voiced support for net neutrality, but he knows he'd face a cloture burden (60 votes) just like Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has faced this Congress with a communications regulatory reform bill containing net neutrality provisions most Democrats feel are insufficient. Reid also has to know that President Bush can be expeccted to discover his veto power and might veto a stand-alone net neutrality bill even if it cleared Congress; thus attaching it as a rider to a spending or otherwise essential bill might be the only hope.

Net neutrality advocates who have been suggesting Stevens would be in the wrong to do that now with his bill presumably would accept Reid doing the same thing for a bill they liked in the next Congress. But the scenario I've painted above is pretty narrow thinking; it's thinking based on a universe where net neutrality is the only thing that matters. If you read some blogs you'd think that was true, but the other day the 463 blog showed us just how little net neutrality was really registering beyond the policy echo-chamber in which we all operate.

Last night Reid said that regardless of how the Senate turns out, he wants to govern from the center. Many -- not all, but many -- of the incoming Democrats in the House and Senate are centrists, and the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal showed many of them are fans of the free market. I've written in this space that no party has a monopoly on supporting free markets. We've also seen prominent Democrats oppose net neutrality regulations, including former FCC Chairman Bill Kennard and, in an essay published by PFF, Cornell University professor and airline industry deregulator Alfred Kahn (FYI, that essay was cited in an editorial in today's Wall Street Journal). I think if you were to survey congressional Democrats, many may be supporting these Internet regulations because party leaders or committee leaders have suggested they should, but they haven't -- yet -- taken the time to examine the harms to innovation and competition that could come from new regulations.

The net neutrality debate has been pretty polarizing, reflecting our political climate. Perhaps, with Republicans a bit chastized and Democrats realizing they need to convince Americans they can actually lead and not just complain, the atmosphere for discussion of net neutrality can improve. Few if any people advocate any firm using market power to disadvantage consumers. Many are comfortable with the principles former FCC Chairman Michael Powell outlined. Little if any actual harmful discrimination has been demonstrated, and even regulatory proponents -- most of them, anyway -- tend to acknowledge that more competition would ameliorate their concerns. So there is room for constructive dialogue on this issue.

This issue could be a chance for the Democratic leadership in the House to show they respect markets, are not inclined to regulate prophylactically, and can work with members of the other party to ensure both competition and consumer well-being. That solution won't satisfy the shrillest of the shrill in this debate, and it likely won't satisfy some of the corporate titans on either side of the issue, but it might serve markets and the consumers in those markets just fine.

Oh, and they better get it done in 2007, because with 2008 being the first election since 1952 in which neither party has a president or vice president running for the nomination, policy debates are going to be sucked into a vacuum so powerful even David Oreck would be humbled.

posted by Patrick Ross @ 10:23 AM | Capitol Hill

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