Three members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, citing major questions of antitrust policy, yesterday asked to review telecommnications legislation under consideration by the Commerce Committee before such a bill reaches the full Senate.
In a letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Howard Cannon (D-Nev.), Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Judiciary Committee chairman. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, and Charles Mathias (R-Md.) said the antitrust policy questions raised by the Senate bill "deserve examination" by their committee.
"I'm not certain I'm against it or for it," Metzenbaum said in an interview yesterday. "I do know that when you want to change the antitrust laws or an existing court order, I want to look at it. I don't want to establish a precedent that would have furture impact on other legislation."
The two-week-old Senate legislation appeared headed for quick Commerce Committee consideration this week, until a Cannon aide announced Wednesday that plans to mark up the bill would be postponed indefinitely as a result of a dispute between Cannon, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. about provisions dealing with the Bell System structure.
Metzenbaum and other Judiciary sources insist that the committee's intention in this case is not to cause a bitter fight between the two panels reminiscent of a jurisdictional dispute between Cannon and Kennedy over trucking deregulation legislation last year.
Metzenbaum said in an interview that, although he was not interested in that kind of dispute, "I think they (the bill's proponents) can't afford to have a floor fight."
Nevertheless, Metzenbaum, in particular, has been raising antitrust concerns about legislation dealing with the legal status and structure of AT&T for almost a year.
In fact, in a speech in March, Metzenbaum directed his attention to similar legislation before the House communications subcommittee, telling a computer industry group that without strong protections against AT&T market power "AT&T will literally wipe up the floor with its smaller competitors."
Like the House bill, the Senate legislation would overturn a 1956 consent decree between AT&T and the Justice Department which bars the phone company from competing in unregulated businesses. Further, the bill would force the Bell System to create a separate subsidiary to market those products, a proposal the three senators said is "a matter of enormous significance" for the industry.
Some critics of the legislation also say its enactment could make it difficult for the government to gain relief from a federal court if the Justice Department wins its pending antitrust case against AT&T, although the bill's advocates say there are adequate legislative protections against such an interpretation.
"I must tell you that's unrealistic," Metzenbaum said in March referring to the impact of legislation on litigation. "Almost certainly, the courts will take into account an action by the Congress that so fundamentally reorganizes the industry."