For Congress, net neutrality means money for nothing

Politics Net neutrality may not have the votes in the incoming Republican-controlled House of Representatives but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a popular topic with members.

The growing number of telecom issues being tee-d up for the new Congress, including net neutrality — the fullest plate since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act — has brought a flood of political contributions to members of the relevant committees over the past two years from cable companies, telcos and other telecom service providers, and the flow isn’t likely to end with the change of party control. That has members scrambling for spots on the key committees and subcommittees in hopes of attracting some of that telecom love.

Thirteen-term GOP congressman from Texas Joe Barton is angling hard for the chairman’s gavel on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over telecom issues, and where Barton currently serves as ranking minority member. Like most of the Texas delegation, Barton has long-standing ties to the energy industry. But four of the five largest contributors to his campaigns over the years, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, are telecom PACs, including those of the NCTA, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.

The same four PACs show up among the top five contributors to Barton’s main rival for the post, Michigan rep. Fred Upton, according to CPI.

Florida representative Cliff Sterns, ranking member of the telecom subcommittee of House Commerce, is also eying the chairman’s seat on the full committee and has recently been spreading around some of the telecom-PAC largess he enjoys among his fellow members by contributing money from his own war chest to their campaigns in an effort to curry favor and win votes for his bid for the chairmanship.

Among Democrats, the plum open spot is ranking member of the telecom subcommittee. The panel has been chaired for the past four years by Virginia congressman Rick Boucher. But Boucher was defeated in his bid for reelection, leaving the post of top Democrat on the panel uncertain. Massachusetts congressman Ed Markey was next in line for the post but he opted to go after the ranking-member spot on the Natural Resources Committee instead. Illinois congressman Bobby Rush is now looking to step into the breach, though Reps. Anna Eshoo (Calif.) and Mike Doyle (Pa.) are also in the running.

Telecom companies don’t limit their largess just to prospective committee chairs and ranking members, however. Over the course of the 2009-2010 election cycle, Comcast doled out more than $2.65 million in campaign contributions, either directly or through PACs, according to the Center For Responsive Politics. The NCTA handed out more than $1.35 million, while Time Warner Cable kicked in $574,000.

Among telcos, AT&T contributed over $3.33 million in the last cycle, while Verizon doled out more than $1.58 million.

Though companies that make campaign contributions are often seeking favors from lawmakers, such as tax breaks or earmarks, much of the giving from the telecom sector at the moment, particularly to the new GOP majority in the House, is aimed at preventing any action on net neutrality or open access requirements for broadband networks, either by Congress or by the FCC. Rep. Barton, for instance, is already promising much tougher oversight of the FCC and of the Obama Administration’s overall broadband policy agenda, telling Bloomberg that one of his priorities as chairman would be “to require the Obama administration Federal Communications Commission to explain why it thinks the Internet needs federal government regulation for the first time.”

The service providers are also trying to block action on the FCC’s AllVid proposal, which would require deployment of a standardized digital home “gateway” that would allow consumers to attach devices of their own choosing to digital pay-TV or broadband networks.

Further reading:

Comcast NBC Deal Review Quickens

Europe Holding Off on Net Neutrality (For Now)

FCC Quizzes ivi CEO on Comcast/NBCU Online Access Issue