The future of the telecommunications debate may rest in the hands of experts who toss about complex jargon with the ease of members of Congress playing to television cameras.
But Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) is trying to convert the arcane world of the congressional effort to rewrite communications law into a vehicle for bringing public attention both to issues surrounding telephone service and, some say, to Wirth himself.
That little-known world changed dramatically three weeks ago when the Justice Department and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. ended years of controversy and litigation by agreeing to break up the AT&T local telephone network.
Though the changes for Wirth, who took over as chairman of a telecommunications subcommittee last year, may not be as profound, an issue he has nearly mastered in a half dozen years has some political sex appeal attached to it. For AT&T's divestiture of its local companies, assets worth $80 billion, has elevated the telecommunications debate to newspaper front pages, magazine covers and television news shows, ending, for the issue, seven years of political obscurity.
For Wirth, whose confident academic manner and hard work as a member of the congressional "Watergate" class of 1974 has made him one of the darlings of a new breed of Democrats, the issues raised by the landmark settlement have catapulted him into a position to have an enormous role in shaping the outcome of the fractured Bell System.
It is a responsibility he has aggressively sought. While some Senate leaders, administration officials, and lobbyists have suggested that the Congress await likely court approval of the agreement's terms, Wirth has led a call for quick legislative action to ensure that the settlement ultimately serves to solidify a consensus on overhauling the 1934 Communications Act.
"Congress," he said at a hearing this week, "has the responsibility to establish policy in this crucial field regardless of court action."
Although Wirth introduced a new communications bill weeks before the Jan. 8 settlement announcement, he believes the basic outlines of that bill remain viable, and that the political concern about residential telephone rate hikes that the settlement spawned make passage of new legislation more likely.
Wirth, in an interview last week at the close of oversight hearings on the decree, said that there is bipartisan support for legislation. "No matter what Mr. Brown AT&T Chairman Charles Brown or anyone else says, there are very significant rate payer and customer issues in this, including what will happen to the quality of local phone service," Wirth said. "I am very concerned that the operating companies not go the way of the railroads."
Although few doubt Wirth's knowledge of and commitment to these telephone issues, some observers wonder whether his aggressive efforts to focus media attention on the issue do not represent a degree of grandstanding. "He may have milked this for more than it's worth," said a House Commerce Committee member, who said he is "amazed" at the press attention focused on Wirth on the issue.
But Wirth said he does not think the issue "plays politically in any way, shape or form," noting the difficulties of dealing with complex issues in Congress. "Enacting good law and getting reelected are mutually exclusive," he said.
Some say his courting of computer industry lobbyists and others represents an effort to build a national political base. But Wirth, former deputy assistant secretary of the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare, said he is "extraordinarily happy" with his current congressional duties, which include spots on budget and energy committees.
Only once in his life has he made a long-term career decision, he said. "After Robert Kennedy was shot, my wife and I said we were going to give the next half dozen years to getting involved in the political process to see that that sort of thing doesn't happen.
"Otherwise, anybody in this business who thinks they can sit and plan ahead is either crazy or is starting to believe his own rhetoric about how important he is -- I'm not that crazy."
Wirth said only budget and tax bills are more important pending congressional issues than telecommunications, arguing the issue focuses attention on technology and is consistent with goals the floundering Democratic Party should embrace. "It is part of a much bigger package as to where this economy and where this society is going," he said.
Wirth said it is "absolutely insane" for the administration to be moving away from funding educational programs, such as engineering and computer science, and putting off the space program, while spending billions on a B1 bomber with only short-term defense capabilities. The economy, he argues, is moving quickly away from its historic reliance on manufacturing and toward technology-related fields, such as telecommunications.
AT&T and the Justice Department's antitrust chief, William Baxter, have repeatedly said that the settlement, produced they say in response to a national consensus about telecommunications policy, essentially solves the basic competitive problems of the industry.
Wirth does not agree that Congress should wait, and said that local rate increases resulting from the settlement may raise residential bills by as much as 300 percent if a new law is not enacted. Baxter and AT&T, on the other hand, say possible sharp rate increases are unrelated to the divestiture.
"The consumers of the country are left without any kind of transition" and the doubling or tripling of rates "talked about by everybody but Mr. Brown may well become a reality," Wirth said.
To avoid these consequences, which Wirth repeatedly charges the Senate with failing to address in legislation passed there by a 90 to 4 vote last fall, his bill goes into considerable detail in spelling out an access fee system designed to raise money at the expense of long distance companies to keep local rates low. Wirth said he is also considering options to ensure the financial and technological viability of the divested local companies.
Wirth also said the one million Bell System employes need the worker protection provisions in the legislation, and that the Federal Communications Commission needs clarification of its regulatory authority.
AT&T officials, including the company's lead lawyer, say the controls on AT&T written into the Wirth legislation were a factor that led to the settlement of the lawsuit, a charge Wirth calls "disingenuous."
But the lines of disagreement between Wirth and AT&T have recently become sharper. Wirth is the originator of the view, later adopted by the American Newspaper Publishers Association, that AT&T acting as a conduit of information in a monopoly environment, such as in the delivery of local telephone service, should not be permitted to control or originate the information sent over those lines.
AT&T and the leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee believe no such controls are needed now and, like Baxter, say the issue is completely obliterated by the settlement, which will end AT&T's local monopoly.
Yet, even before the settlement Wirth was convinced the same principle should be applied to AT&T's ability to distribute information over long distance lines. Wirth says the long distance market, now about 97 percent in AT&T's hands, is still monopolized, even though Baxter says AT&T has lost market power.
"The issue is a First Amendment issue and involves access to the means of communications," he said. There should not be some other entity that arrogates to themselves the responsibility to decide what information the American people receive."