Facebook Twitter Comments Slate Plus

Senate Democrats Are Trying to Save Net Neutrality. It’s Pure Political Theater.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be effective.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 09:  Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) (L) is flanked by Ed Markey (D-MA) and  Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)while speaking about a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution that would undo action by the FCC and restore the 2015 net neutrality rules, on Capitol Hill January 9, 2018 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Sen. Bill Nelson is flanked by Ed Markey and Tammy Duckworth while speaking about a Congressional Review Act resolution that would undo an action by the FCC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When the Federal Communications Commission voted to undo Obama-era net neutrality rules in December, congressional Democrats were swift to respond.

As April Glaser wrote in Slate, Sen. Ed Markey quickly began to push a Congressional Review Act resolution that would essentially undo the FCC’s actions. At the time, 23 other senators had joined Markey. By Monday of this week, their number had swollen to 30, enough to force a floor vote on the resolution. As of Tuesday, the resolution had 40 supporters, thanks in part to Republican Sen. Susan Collins, an on-the-record opponent of the FCC’s decision. In the days ahead, that number will surely continue to grow.

Make no mistake, however: Markey’s resolution isn’t going to save net neutrality, even if it somehow receives 51 votes in the Senate. Unlike some of the state-specific attempts to defend net neutrality—such as California’s attempt to impose laws of its own—this resolution is pure political theater.

To describe it as such isn’t necessarily to impugn its supporters’ intentions. It’s entirely possible that all of them would legally codify net neutrality if they thought they could, but that doesn’t seem to be what they’re aiming for here. If they were, they’d likely be employing a process other than the Congressional Review Act, a law that was—as Planet Money has put it—effectively put in place to help overturn rules imposed at the end of an outgoing president’s term.

It is, in other words, a tool to help new administrations (and their congressional allies) push back against last-minute impositions from their predecessors. (Hence its relatively brief window of relevance: Congress has to act within 60 legislative days.) In an unlikely scenario where this resolution passes both Senate and House, it would still require the president’s signature. Under the Trump administration, the GOP has employed the tool to undo a handful of Obama-supported rules—which is, after all, what the act is there for. But it seems improbable that the president will allow it to be used against a change enacted on his own watch—especially one that he publicly supports.

That doesn’t mean Markey’s resolution won’t be effective. By forcing a vote, Democrats will be demanding that Republican senators go on the record about their stance on net neutrality. Where the unelected FCC commissioners who supported the new rules are all but impervious to voter ire, senators who vote against Markey’s plan could be left exposed on an issue that elicits strong feelings, especially from young voters.

This is all to say that Markey—and many of his co-sponsors—are really looking forward to the 2018 midterm elections. If you’re a fan of political strategy, it’s a promising—and potentially effective—play. But if you’re hoping to defend net neutrality today, you may need to look elsewhere.

One more thing

You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.

Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

Join Slate Plus