12 Angry Men and Your Communications Future

Posted on May 8, 2006 - 7:21am.

Public response to Upton's statement should be one of outrage.

from: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Key bill will be done in secret

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/07/06

WASHINGTON — The House and Senate are preparing to vote on telecommunications legislation that could affect every American who surfs the Internet, watches cable TV or uses a phone.

But consumers shouldn't waste much time watching the floor debates on C-SPAN. The lawmakers themselves admit their goal is not to pass definitive legislation in public in the coming weeks.

Instead, they want the House and Senate to pass separate bills, regardless of how different they may be. The final version would be negotiated, largely in private, by about a dozen senators and representatives on a conference committee.

The Senate just needs to pass "anything to get us into conference," where the real decisions will be made, House telecommunications subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said Tuesday at a telecom forum hosted by National Journal's Technology Daily.

"It's not supposed to work like this," said Celia Wexler, vice president for advocacy for Common Cause, a government watchdog group. "It's appalling that you can hear a member [of Congress] say that in public."

Watchdog groups say that while most conference negotiations are closed to public view, lobbyists continue to influence the members and their staffers, sometimes even supplying language that ends up as the law of the land.

In the case of telecom, the groups say, so many persuasive and well-financed lobbyists are involved that they may battle to a standstill, leaving Congress flush with campaign contributions but unable to agree on a final bill before adjournment.

"We're going to do all we can to put the citizens back into the process," Wexler said.

That won't be easy. The evolving telecom legislation is following a well-worn path that Congress often uses to craft spending, tax and other bills outside public view.

Though Congress has held numerous public hearings on telecom issues over the past year, details of legislation have been largely worked out in private. Several senators and their staffers have complained, off the record, that the process has been closed even to them.

To some, Congress' handling of an issue known as "network neutrality" illustrates the process.

Consumer advocates say that unless Congress spells out tough rules to ensure that providers of high-speed Internet service treat all Web sites and services in a neutral way, cable and phone companies will make content providers pay fees for quick downloads of their sites and services.

For example, if Yahoo paid such a fee, its search engine might work faster than Google's. Net neutrality proponents say that would forever change the free and open nature of the Internet, making it more like cable TV service where large companies choose what subscribers can see.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) recently revealed his 135-page draft bill after months of behind-the-scenes work. The committee is scheduled to consider the bill June 8, and the full Senate may vote on it before the August recess.

Stevens' legislation does little to preserve network neutrality. It calls only for federal regulators to prepare annual reports on the delivery of Internet services.

The House telecom bill, expected to win approval this week, does have some provisions for protecting network neutrality.

But Wexler, of Common Cause, fears that no matter what legislation passes in public, the neutrality protections will be stripped out in the conference committee.

Key Republican lawmakers "want a bill that will be as weak as possible" in terms of protecting consumers, Wexler said.

In her "nightmare scenario," the House-Senate conferees would kill neutrality protections and vote on final legislation after the November election, during a lame-duck session of the expiring 109th Congress. Without having to worry about angering voters, "the unholy child that would emerge" could be very favorable to industry, she said.

But network neutrality isn't the only major issue in the telecom bill.

Others are allowing national franchising for video services, expanding fees for the telephone Universal Service Fund, opening unused broadcast spectrum for unlicensed wireless equipment, establishing a broadcast "flag" to protect digital content from Internet piracy, and allowing municipalities to offer high-speed Internet access.

Capitol Hill experts say that how Congress resolves these issues could have an enormous impact on corporate earnings. As a result, the lobbying is so intense that "they could checkmate each other," said Wayne Crews, a technology policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a research group that supports free enterprise.

Scott Cleland, chief executive of the consulting firm Precursor Group, agreed that final legislation might not pass this year.

"Legislation is always hard to pass, but especially in an election year" when Congress allows itself plenty of time for campaigning, he said.

"There is less floor time, and less motivation to cooperate" because some lawmakers prefer having an issue left unresolved so they can condemn their opponent's position, he said.

Paul Glenchur, who tracks telecom regulations for the Stanford Washington Research Group, said an unresolved issue can also help candidates raise campaign funds. "There are a lot of deep-pocket industries that take an interest in this legislation," he noted.

For example, Federal Election Commission data show that through the first quarter of 2006, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) received $10,000 in political action committee contributions for the 2005-2006 election cycle from AT&T, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and MCI, now part of Verizon Communications.

The telecom legislation also might die this year because Democrats see a chance to reclaim the majority of seats. If Democrats could get control of committee chairmanships, they could shape legislation more to their liking, so they have little incentive to act in 2006.

"If there is a real strong sense that a shift [to Democrats] could happen, then that could trickle into people's thinking about the legislation," Glenchur said.

( categories: Senate S.2686 )