Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 10, 2016

Municipal Broadband Action in House Would Tie FCC’s Hands

Canines and Childhood Cancer

Blackburn. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House has agreed to a Republican measure that would block the Federal Communications Commission from overriding state laws that restrict municipal broadband networks. The 223-200 vote on the proposal by Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn was largely split along partisan lines.

Blackburn’s amendment to the House’ fiscal 2015 Financial Services spending bill would bar the FCC from using money from the bill to prevent 20 states from implementing laws dealing with provision of broadband service by the state or localities. (Annual FCC appropriations are covered by the legislation, which includes spending for several independent agencies.)

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has contended that municipal broadband networks shouldn’t be blocked by state laws and that the FCC has the authority to pre-empt those laws. And he has said he intends to use that authority.

Blackburn cast the issue as one of states’ rights. (Her critics say she wants to reduce competition for the big broadband providers.)

“Twenty states across our country have held public debates and enacted laws that limit municipal broadband to varying degrees,” she said on the House floor Tuesday evening. “States have spoken and said we should be careful and deliberate in how we allow public entry into our vibrant  communications marketplace.”

“Inserting the FCC into our states economic and fiscal affairs sets a dangerous precedent and violates state sovereignty in a manner that warrants deeper examination,” she said.

Among Republicans, 221 voted  in favor of Blackburn’s proposal and four voted in opposition (Charles Boustany Jr. of Louisiana, Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, Mike D. Rogers of Alabama and Mo Brooks of Alabama). Among Democrats, 196 voted in opposition and two voted favor (John Barrow of Georgia and Jim Matheson of Utah).

Tennessee is among the states with restrictions on municipal broadband, and the Center for Public Integrity reported last week that Chattanooga officials are looking to ask the FCC to pre-empt the state law that blocks them from expanding its network.

New York Democrat José E. Serrano opposed the amendment and made the argument for local rights.

“Whatever happened to localism or local control?” he said on the House floor Tuesday evening.

Pre-emption was not about forcing states to take any actions, but about  stopping them from “choking grassroots competition” and stopping them from blocking faster or new networks, he said.

“Pre-emption will not force anyone to do anything that the municipalities alone don’t want to do,” he said.

Here’s what the amendment says:

None of the funds made available in this Act to the Federal Communications Commission may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws with respect to the provision of broadband Internet access service… by the State or a municipality or other political subdivision of the State.

Last month, several Democrats on the Hill Senate a letter to Wheeler urging him to use his “full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service.”

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