Amid a strong show of congressional support for a government program to curb unsolicited calls, a key House committee chairman yesterday dropped his opposition to a Federal Trade Commission request for quick funding for a national do-not-call list.
After a 90-minute committee briefing with FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he will help the agency obtain quick approval for the plan -- as long as the funding is limited and Congress has a chance to review the program in a couple of years.
"We are working with the FTC to try to get one to two years' funding authority" for the anti-telemarketing registry, Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said shortly after the briefing. "We are shooting to get this done," he added, so the $16 million in funding can be approved by the end of this month and the do-not-call list can be operational by the end of the year.
Tauzin's support contrasted with reservations he expressed as recently as Tuesday. In a letter to Muris late last month, Tauzin said he would block the agency's request for immediate funding until his committee had "adequate opportunity to properly review and evaluate" the plan.
During the briefing, one committee member after another denounced telemarketing calls and applauded Muris for his agency's efforts to limit unwanted telephone solicitations.
"This is a giant step forward for consumers often plagued by unsolicited, intrusive telemarketing calls," Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said, just as his cell phone started to ring. "No, I don't want to change my phone service; take me off that list," he said, as if berating a telemarketer, as the audience in the committee room laughed.
"It will be nice to return to the days when you want to answer the phone," added Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.).
Not only was the praise bipartisan, but several congressmen suggested that Congress consider taking the do-not-call list even further by enacting legislation to broaden the FTC's authority to bar solicitations from politicians. Even Tauzin said he was "personally offended by recorded calls from politicians."
Under the FTC's plan, announced last month, consumers would be able to join a national do-not-call list by dialing a toll-free number from their home telephone and then punching in some numbers, or by signing up via the Internet. Telemarketers calling numbers on that list would risk being fined up to $11,000 for each banned call. The $16 million needed to fund the list would be repaid by the telemarketers, who would have to pay a fee to gain access to it to know whom not to call.
Although Tauzin said he would support a pilot program, he wondered whether the FTC has the authority to go ahead with its plans and worried that without further congressional action, the do-not-call list could be challenged in court. Tauzin also noted that some industries, such as insurance, banking and telecommunications, would be exempt because the agency doesn't have authority to regulate those businesses.
"The last thing we need is for two separate agencies to have different jurisdictional scope crafting their own regulations," he said.
Muris said the Federal Communications Commission is reviewing its telemarketing rules, and he hopes that agency will issue new rules forcing those industries to comply with the FTC's do-not-call list.
K. Dane Snowden, chief of the FCC's bureau of consumer and governmental affairs, said both agencies are "going to make sure we don't contradict one another as we go forward."