There’s a handful of House Democrats wrestling with the idea of signing a document that, it’s safe to say at this point, will have no historical impact whatsoever. If it is remembered at all, it will be remembered as a list of people who failed to overturn one of the most unpopular decisions by the Trump administration, at least when it comes to the internet.
To put it bluntly, every Democrat should want to be on this list full of losers.
Outside Washington, the issue of net neutrality is one that few Americans disagree over. Last year this time, three out of four Republicans opposed the FCC’s move to repeal its net neutrality rules. Overall, eight out of 10 Americans were opposed. But in Congress, Democrats are almost entirely alone in representing the views of this majority of Americans. Because of this, Democrats are expected to be unyielding, to zealously defend net neutrality at every opportunity and at any cost.
Yes, that includes signing pointless petitions.
Using the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to overturn the FCC vote was always a Hail Mary. The real fight is taking place in the D.C. Circuit, where a federal judge will spend months hearing the arguments, absorbing the granular details offered by both sides, and weighing the potential harms of the agency’s actions. The idea that a Republican-controlled House would pass a resolution to help toss out a key Trump administration policy, one of its few victories in the president’s first year, had the same probability of an alien invasion.
Frankly, that’s not the point. Net neutrality advocates certainly couldn’t care less. Even if the CRA failed, it provided an opportunity to gather a definitive headcount of where individual lawmakers stand on the issue. It’s a reflection of their willingness to go to bat for the internet and—if we’re being totally honest—it’s a trap that’s designed to out Democrats who will do the bidding of telecom lobbyists because that’s who cuts them checks.
It is no coincidence that four of the 16 Democrats who’ve yet to sign the CRA petition come from Philly, “Comcast’s backyard.”
One of those lawmakers, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, justified her original decision to not sign the petition by saying, in part, that “it wasn’t going anywhere.” The other 15 have largely avoided the issue as though it’s unimportant. But Scanlon later reversed her decision to sign after voters called her on it.
This ‘useless’ petition will ultimately serve as a guide for progressives who are interested in dragging Democrats they don’t like through the mud—and by mud, I mean long and painful primaries. It will arm them with something that requires little explanation and is easily absorbed by voters for whom this issue might be seen as deal breaker: “When it came time to oppose the Trump administration’s decision to repeal net neutrality, Congressman Boyle hid in his office,” is what they’ll say.
For some voters, that’s all they’ll need to hear. In fact, for many Democrats, support or opposition to net neutrality has become a litmus test that reveals how easily a candidate can be swayed by corporate lobbyists and fat campaign checks.
“The discharge petition is a simple up or down vote on net neutrality. If your name is not on it, you’re actively helping telecom companies seize even more power to screw over Internet users,” says Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a lead organizer of pro-net neutrality activists.
“Now that Ajit Pai has done their bidding, lobbyists for Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T are hoping to use the next two years to ram through bad legislation that claims to save net neutrality while permanently undermining it. They’re counting the votes and seeing if they can buy off enough support to make it happen,” she said. “The Democrats who refuse to sign on to the discharge petition will be their primary targets—they’ve already signaled that they’re willing to go against the wishes of their constituents in order to appeal big cable donors.”
The power that Congress seized 20 years ago to overturn rule-making decisions by federal agencies was borne out of necessity. More and more, the legislature was putting forth bills that delegated key details, such as how a law might actually be enforced, to executive agencies. Congress was surrendering its law-making power under the U.S. Constitution bit by bit, leaving it to people hand picked by presidents to fill in the blanks. And while until recently it went unused, but once, for nearly two decades, Congress at least had the power to check those agencies in its back pocket.
Democrats who are uninterested in exercising that power against the Trump administration, even if it ultimately proves to be a pointless gesture, will confound Democratic voters, and lead them to ask questions such like, “How much is Comcast paying this asshole?”
There are groups very eager to answer those questions, and they have millions of supporters behind them.
Update 6pm ET: Added additional contextual information.