House Speaker Thomas O'Neill (D-Mass.) yesterday granted the House Judiciary Committee referral of controversial communications legislation, despite suggestions by the bill's sponsors that such a move might prevent the bill's final House passage this year.
The O'Neill decision come at a crucial time for the landmark telecommunications legislation, which was adopted by the House Commerce Committee on July 31.
Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has asked that his panel be given an opportunity to consider the bill in light of his view that the legislation, which alters the structure of American Telephone & Telegraph & c., ultimately could affect the Justice Department's antitrust suit against AT&T.
Although O'Neill did not say in his letter to Rodino how long the Judiciary Committee would have to consider the legislation, most such referrals are given about 30 days. With the autumn election campaign nearing, most House observers say passage of the legislation by the full House would be unlikely if it is held up for that long by Rodino.
O'Neill said he would provide Rodino's committee with "an appropriate period of time" when the Commerce Committee files a report on the telecommunications legislation.
Two weeks ago, six key sponsors of the House bill, including Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.), chairman of the communications subcommittee, asked O'Neill to reject Rodino's referral request, arguing that they would be willing to permit Rodino to try to amend the bill on the House floor, and saying a referral "might prevent" the full House from taking up the bill during the current congressional session.
At the same time, Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R-N.M.), a sponsor of similar communications legislation now bottled up before the Senate Commerce Committee, said yesterday the chances of the Senate taking action on that bill this year "are small, maybe approaching zero."
But at the same time, Schmitt said in an interview that he and other Republican sponsors of the Senate bill, Sens. Robert PACKWOOD (R-Ore.) and Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), would continue to push for Commerce Committee consideration of the legislation.
Sens. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) have refused to bring the bill before the panel until a dispute with AT&T over the role of the Federal Communications Commissions in montoring the industry is resolved.
"We on the minority side are going to continue to try to move forward with a bill," Schmitt said. The three Republicans, he said, have agreed to try to assemble a compromise bill that legislation dealing with the broadcasting industry.
The bill passed by the House Commerce Committee addresses the common carrier, or telephone and related industries. "If that would get us moving, I certainly would be willing to consider more limited legislation," he said.
But Schmitt said it is "too bad" that the House Judiciary Committee had been given the jurisdication. "I don't know that they've been too involved in this complex legislation," Schmitt said. "It may now be very idfficult for the House to act."
Both the Senate and House bills would lift a 1956 consent decree between the government and AT&T barring the Bell System from offering unregulated services.
They also would require AT&T to set up separate subsidiaries to offer unregulated communications services to the public and in several ways take major steps to lift government regulation from the burgeoning telecommunications industry.