Rewriting the nation's communications laws will be near the top of the list of priorites for the Senate Commerce Committee, knowledgeable sources said yesterday.
Word of an apparent high-level decision among leading Republican members of the Senate panel represents the first glimpse of the plans of Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), who is expected to succeed Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.) as chairman of the Commerce Committee. Packwood would like to push such legislation out of the committee within five or six months after the new Congress takes over in January, sources said.
The sources also said Packwood is very interested in at least three other significant areas. Among his priorities are the plight of the nation's commuter airlines, the state of the Coast Guard and a possible in-depth study of problems facing the nation's scientific establishment.
But with Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) in line to take over the House communications subcommittee from Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.), who was defeated in last week's election, communications legislation is likely to be given serious consideration in both houses of Congress early next year.
Central to the legislation in its current forms are provisions that would permit American Telephone & Telegraph Co. to enter the computer business, lifting a 24-year-old judicial ban on Bell System competition in unregulated markets. The legislation also would deregulate substantial portions of the telephone industry. AT&T officials are continuing to say that legislation is critical to their future plans.
Critics, including AT&T competitors, some computer industry concerns and antitrust activists, have charged that passage of such legislation could undermine the Justice Department's hopes to break up AT&T in a major antitrust case which is scheduled to go to trial in January.
Wirth was a major force in getting the House Commerce Committee to pass communications legislation, the farthest such a bill has gone in Congress since the subject was put on the congressional platter four years ago. An unfavorable recommendation by the House Judiciary Committee has stymied the legislation in the House for the current session.
Packwood, as the then-ranking minority member of the committee, was a sponsor -- with Cannon -- of telecommunications legislation before it was effectively killed by Cannon late last June.
At the time, Cannon said through an aide that he would not take up the controversial bill until AT&T dropped its opposition to a key section of the bill.
Packwood split with Cannon on the decision to delay the legislation indefinitely, saying that committee members should be given a chance to vote on the bill.
"The committee members are capable of wrestling with these complex issues and voting them up or down," Packwood said. "I don't think this legislation should be, or in fact can be, fully orchestrated before the markup."
The new Congress is also under heavy pressure to consider legislation that would involve certain facets of broadcasting industry deregulation. It is unclear, however, what would be included along with phone deregulation in any Commerce Committee package.
Further, it is also uncertain who would succeed Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) as chairman of the Senate communications subcommittee. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), the ranking subcommittee member, could have the job for the asking, although Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R-N.M.) also is interested.