After months of fierce lobbying and intense congressional effort, the four-year endeavor to rewrite the nation's communications laws and deregulate key facets of the telephone industry appeared to die yesterday for at least this congressional session.
That verdict came from sources on all sides of the issue as the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend that Congress postpone consideration of the legislative package.
Although the vote of the full Judiciary Committee was not unanimous, there appears to be virtually no support for bringing the bill to the House floor this year. Key Senate members already have said the bill will not even reach a vote before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, said the decision to vote out the bill "adversely, but without prejudice" was based on the lack of time Rodino's panel was given to consider the antitrust consequences of the legislation.
During a brief debate over the committee resolution, several members said they did not want the subsequent voice vote to appear as committee disapproval of the legislation and its deregulatory thrust.
For example, Rep. Robert McClory (R-Ill.), the ranking minority committee member, said the emphasis of the action "should be on the words 'without prejudice.'
"We are not indicating we are against any form of this bill," he added.
At Rodino's request, House Speaker Tip O'Neill gave the Judiciary Committee until today to consider the antitrust implications of the legislation, which easily passed the House Commerce Committee in August. The Committee has until Oct. 9, however, to prepare a report on the legislation.
The legislation would open the industry to unregulated competition in many areas and would free the industry giant, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., from a 1956 consent decree with the government that bars AT&T from competing in unregulated markets such as data processing.
The legislation would force AT&T to set up a separate susidiary for such services, but would limit the Federal Communications Commission from overseeing the subsidiary's activities, asubject that predictably led the FCC to strongly oppose the legislation.
The action lifting the consent decree provisions also caused a split within the Carter administration as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, strongly supported the move, while the Justice Department vigorously opposed it.
Rodino also has said several times that despite a so-called "savings clause" in the bill which would prohibit courts from reading the legislation as altering antitrust actions such as the government's massive suit against AT&T, he was concerned about the bill's effects on the case.
Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.), chairman of the House communications subcommittee and the leader of the four-year congressional fight to move telecommunications legislation through Congress, said he was uncertain, if re-elected, what he would propose to do next year.
"I suppose if we ascertained that there wasn't the same push for it," the committee would not reconsider similar legislation next year, Van Deerlin said.