Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Senate Majority Leader, is taking a new tactic to writing legislation. He's letting the public in on the process and the topic couldn't be better: America's broadband policy.
In a posting on Matt Stoller's new blog, Durbin said that, starting tomorrow night, he will be online for four nights to discuss what our broadband policies should be. There will be a series of three principles around which Durbin wants to craft legislation: “(1) Broadband access must be universal and affordable; (2) We need to preserve an online environment for innovation; and (3) We need to ensure that broadband technology enables more voices to be heard.”
To his credit, Durbin said he's engaging in this process because “We need more public participation and transparency in the way Congress crafts significant legislation. This is an approach to legislation that has never been tried before.” If the model works, Durbin said it could be expanded to other subject areas. Second, he said that the U.S. has no broadband policy and is falling behind foreign competitors.
Durbin has introduced one broadband bill already, S. 1190 that would establish a grant program modeled after Connect Kentucky to the rest of the country. The bill would award grants to statewide organizations to identify and track the availability of broadband and to help localities figure out what are the barriers to broadband deployment. Durbin's legislative language has already been incorporated into Senate legislation (S. 1492) that proposes new broadband data-collection standards for the FCC, and probably would be included in any new House legislation on the same topic.
To the extent that Durbin's gambit engages the interested public in the issue, the effort is fine. There are many people online who have great ideas about how the broadband world should be shaped. Some will be ordinary people with a great interest in the topic. Others undoubtedly will work for telephone companies. Bringing online people who aren't there now should be one hot topic for discussion. The pressure will be on the Durbin staff to come up with a piece of legislation to reflect the discussion, as the people who took part in the discussion will be watching.
Durbin is planning to come up with a legislative draft after the August recess and to post the bill, written in formal legislative language. That draft will show how the different parts of the bill reflect the previous online discussions and ideas. People will then have the opportunity to have a discussion about the draft before introduction.
The civics lesson aspects of the Durbin project are phenomenal. It could give a real insight into how a legislative process could work. No doubt, many people will ask, as do lobbyists – why did this idea get in and not that? Why did you do something this way? The replies will be illuminating.
The civic lesson shouldn't stop there. Its one thing to introduce legislation. That happens all the time. Legislative assistants frequently circulate drafts of legislation and hold many meetings just to get some language in shape to introduce and to gain support. If Durbin's bill introduction project is the undergrad project, the graduate-level project will be actually trying to pass something. Passing legislation is much harder than introducing it.
Passing meaningful telecommunications legislation is very difficult because just about any progressive ideas or bills geared to introducing competition or innovation will incur the wrath of the telephone and/or cable companies, and possibly the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as well. As we've written before, the big phone companies control as many votes on the Democratic side of committees, particularly the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as they do on the Republican side. Durbin has the disadvantage of not being on the committee of jurisdiction, the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee, but the added advantage of being in the leadership.