Legislative efforts to restructure the nation's telephone industry dramatically are bogged down in several intense controversies about the future shape of the Bell System.
A potential key player in the battle, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), chairman of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, has blasted a bail now before the House Commerce Committee that would, in part, permit American Telephone & Telegraph Co. to enter telecommunications markets from which it is barred.
Warning of a threat to Bell competitors, particularly in the equipmenet field, Metzenbaum said the bill, which passed a House communications subcommittee in January by a 13-to-1 vote, will allow AT&T to destroy competition in the industry.
"I will flatly predict here and now that unless the protections written into this bill are greatly strengthened, an unleashed AT&T will literally wipe up the floor with its smaller competitors," Metzenbaum told a trade group the other day.
Although a companion telecommunications bill has yet to be introduced in the Senate, Metzenbaum threatened to get into a jurisdictional fight with the Senate Commerce Committee, if his subcommittee does not get a say-so in the consideration of the bill.
In addition to Metzenbaum's blast at the House efforts, Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has written to that chamber's Commerce Committee seeking tougher language on the fate of the Bell System in the bill under consideration.
That tougher language comes from a Feb. 20 letter to Rodino from M. Litvack, chief of the Justice Department's antitrust division. In three parts, Litvack asked the House to consider provisions that specifically would not allow the bill to be construed as altering the ultimate result of the government's massive antitrust suit to break up AT&T.
But those concerns with the House bill may be mitigated by the fact that Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.)., chairman of the subcommittee that produced the communications rewrite bill, is willing to accept the Litvack language. Other members of the Commerce Committee are also likely to support those chances.
A less visible and potentially more significant roadblock to the telephone package, however, is a simmering controversy about what is known as "information sharing."
Shources say that this issue, more than any other, may determine whether the House committee ever seriously considers the telephone bill. In essence the flap, so far barely before the public, centers on how much information Bell System subsidiaries will be permitted to share with each other. "If this issue isn't solved, the bill might be dead," a knowledgeable source said.
Members of the Commerce Committee have asked for a wide variety of revisions to the bill, some of which virtually would bar AT&T workers from discussing their work over lunch. Some of the still-secret language effectively would result in the Bell System's divestiture of some of its units.
The bill would modify provisions of a 1956 consent decree between the government and AT&T that in essence requires Bell to stay out of unregulated sectors of the industry.
Through accounting provisions of a 1956 consent decree between the government and AT&T that in essence requires Bell to stay out of unregulated sectors of the industry.
Through accounting procedures and the establishment of fully separate subsidiaries, the House bill would end years of AT&T complaints about the terms and interpretations of that decree.
That message was reiterated just yesterday when AT&T released its 1979 annual report. Noting his concerns about maintaining the "unitary management" of the Bell System and a need for "mechanisms" to deal with the problems of transition to a competitive environment, AT&T Chairman Charles Brown then addressed the question of the 1956 decree.
"No longer does it make sense to deny the Bell System the opportunity to compete in unregulated markets," Brown wrote. He went on to say that legislation is necessary and feasible.
Metzenbaum, for one, thinks there is something sinister in AT&T's approach to the House bill. "AT&T would do legislatively -- in the halls of Congress -- that which it probably can't do in the courts," Metzenbaum said in his speech.
"It's obvious, you can't hire a lobbyist in the court. You can hire the best and most expensive firms to lobby the Congress."
Whether any of that lobbying has been worth the cost could depend on whether the House moves quickly. Congress will go into recess in a month, and some observers say that if the bill's advocates don't get it moving, it may be dead for the current session.