Congress Unlikely to Introduce Controversial Telecom Legislation, Say Experts

The Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress will focus on key issues such as homeland security and the economy during the 108th Congress and are unlikely to push any controversial bills, including telecom legislation, experts said Wednesday during a press briefing hosted by the Competitive Telecommunications Association (CompTel).

It is hard to fathom Congress supporting legislation that doesn’t have “very wide and deep support” and resembles recent controversial telecom bills, such as the broadband legislation Sens. John Breaux (D-La.) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.) introduced in late April, said John Timmons, principal of lobbying and consulting firm the Cormac Group.

“I think [controversial legislation] is going to be frowned upon,” said Timmons, who worked as a former senior minority counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee and a former staff member for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The White House and Republicans are collaborating to keep “the agenda pretty simple” and focus on what can be achieved, said Steve Perry, CEO and senior managing partner of the Dutko Group, a lobbying firm representing CompTel.

“I think that all works against any kind of massive legislative rewrite of the Telecom Act,” he said.

Several pieces of telecom legislation were introduced during the last session, but none passed both the House and the Senate. Neither the dominant Bell companies nor their rivals are likely to find it easier to pass legislation this time around, says one expert.

“I have been though this type of situation many times where you have an industry or subset of an industry that makes a major push on a piece of legislation and fails. It never gets easier in the next Congress. It always gets harder,” said Julian Epstein, a lobbyist with the Law Media Group and a former minority chief counsel and staff director for the House Judiciary Committee, which shares jurisdiction with the Commerce Committee on telecom issues.

Meantime, CompTel remains committed to fighting anti-competition, “regardless of what disguise it might be wearing,” said Robert McDowell, vice president and assistant general counsel of CompTel. The association is meeting with Federal Communications Commission staff and will continue to walk the halls of Congress, said CompTel president H. Russell Frisby Jr.

The FCC is scheduled to issue a number of important orders in the next few months, including a ruling on the controversial resale model known as the unbundled network element – platform (UNE-P), which allows telephone companies to resell the Bell’s local networks under a pricing structure based on forward-looking costs.

Regardless of the FCC’s decisions, Congress is likely to hold hearings and further discussions about the commission’s actions, Perry said. McCain, who believes the 1996 Telecom Act included too much regulation and introduced his own telecom legislation this year, will take over the Senate Commerce Committee as Chairman in January, Perry said. McCain proposed legislation last summer to deregulate the consumer broadband market. The proposed bill, dubbed the Consumer Broadband Deregulation Act of 2002, aimed to encourage innovation by eliminating government mandates that require incumbent operators to share their networks with competitors at regulated prices.

“We share a common bond with Senator McCain,” Perry said. “We’d like to find a better way to do this too without invasive regulation. I don’t think the Bell companies object to our access. I don’t think they like the regulatory system.”

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