NTCA’s 2017 Outlook: Legislation

Rural Voters Make an Impact. Will Policy Attention Follow?

By David Hoover

The 2016 election season was a watershed moment for American politics. It was a bruising cycle that bucked traditional political norms during both the primary season and the general election. Not surprisingly, lower voter turnout was expected, but when all the votes are counted, the total tally will eclipse the high-water mark set in 2008, when more than 131 million Americans cast their ballots for either Barack Obama or John McCain.

What the Data Tell Us

Political analysts will be sifting through the exit polls and other data for some time, hoping to better understand why their projections missed the mark. However, one early finding could lead to potential benefits for attention to rural telecommunications issues on both Capitol Hill and with the new administration: Donald Trump’s winning margins in rural America. An increase in Republican support in small towns and rural areas created enough of a shift in key battleground states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan for Trump to win the Electoral College. Trump also outperformed Mitt Romney among rural voters in other states, including Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota.

In the aftermath of such an election, both Republican and Democratic members of Congress may be more mindful of rural voters and the issues they face, providing NTCA members a unique opportunity and angle to engage our elected representatives and the administration on rural broadband issues.

Key Congressional Developments

Trump will have the advantage of working with a Republican-led Congress, the first such alignment in nearly a decade. Despite losing seats in both chambers, Republicans exceeded expectations and maintained control of Capitol Hill. In the Senate, the Republicans had a net loss of two seats during a cycle where they were defending two dozen seats. The Republicans have a 52–48 seat advantage in the 115th Congress. On controversial policy issues, Republicans will need the support of eight Democratic senators for a filibuster-proof majority. Some Democrats may be more inclined to support GOP positions, since they will be defending 25 Senate seats in 2018, including 10 seats in states won by Trump—North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri and Montana. Only eight Republicans are up for re-election that year.

The leadership and member composition of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will change very little. Committee assignments will occur in January. Senate Commerce Committee members Ron Johnson (R–Wis.), Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), and Roy Blunt (R–Mo.) all won their re-elections, but it wasn’t a clean sweep, as Kelly Ayotte (R–N.H.) lost her bid. In the 114th Congress, Republicans had a two-seat advantage on the committee; based on the 2016 election results, the Democrats may gain one seat in the 115th Congress. Sen. John Thune (R–S.D.) will remain chairman of the full committee while Sen. Bill Nelson (D–Fla.) will remain ranking member. Sens. Roger Wicker (R–Miss.) and Brian Schatz (D–Hawaii) will remain chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet.