Stimulus Package Runs Into House Opposition

Parts of a huge economic stimulus package being pushed by U.S. President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are running into opposition, including so-called open access requirements tacked onto a fund intended to spur broadband deployment.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee raised objections Thursday to the open-access provisions in a new broadband-funding program and to the speed at which congressional Democrats are trying to push through the US$825 billion stimulus package.

The House Appropriations Committee first unveiled the stimulus package, which includes several tech-related elements, on Jan. 15, and House leaders said they hope to vote on the legislation on the House floor sometime next week. "We're rushing through a multibillion-dollar bill," Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican said Thursday.

Late Thursday, the Energy and Commerce Committee approved sections of the House bill that would create a new Broadband Deployment Grant program at the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The NTIA would administer a program with a budget of more than $2.8 billion, with net neutrality and open access rules pegged to the grants. Open access would presumably mean that users could bring devices of their choosing, including wireless broadband devices from other providers, and net neutrality rules would prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing Web content from competitors.

The open access and net neutrality rules would stifle the broadband providers' "ability to manage their own networks," Barton said.

Several groups praised the committee for keeping the net neutrality rules in the bill. The open access and net neutrality rules will protect broadband customers, said Public Knowledge, a consumer rights group.

Others questioned the net neutrality provisions.

"While there is a good argument for including some money for broadband build-out in an economic stimulus bill, it is discouraging to see the House Commerce Committee bill include net neutrality requirements," said Randolph May, president of the conservative think tank, the Free State Foundation. "It would be much sounder policy to consider any proposed net neutrality-like mandates after full committee hearings and floor debate focusing on the impacts of such mandates."

In addition to approving the NTIA program, the House Energy and Commerce Committee also approved language authorizing an $11 billion program in the U.S. Department of Energy to assist the deployment of an Internet-based smart energy grid, which could allow homeowners to track and adjust their electricity use on the Web. The smart grid program would, among other things, provide grants to electric utilities for smart grid demonstrations projects.

The House version of the stimulus package also includes $20 billion to push forward electronic health-care records; $20 billion for modernizing schools, including tech upgrades, and $400 million to replace the Social Security Administration's 30-year-old National Computer Center.

Obama met Friday with congressional leaders of both major parties. Some Republicans left the meeting saying they were encouraged that Obama seemed willing to listen to their ideas. Obama said the stimulus package would be a "heavy lift" for lawmakers, but it was needed to help turn around the U.S. economy.

But House Republican Leader John Boehner, from Ohio, suggested the Democratic stimulus package includes too much spending and too few tax cuts. "This is not our money to spend," he said. "We're borrowing it from our kids. We have to fund a package that is the right size."

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