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'Abusive' political robocalls targeted by senators

New bill would set limits on how often Americans can receive the automated calls from supporters and opponents of federal candidates.

"Robocalls," the bane of many an Americans' existence during the heat of political campaigns, would encounter new limits under a U.S. Senate bill proposed Tuesday.

Under the "Robocall Privacy Act of 2008," anyone who makes or sets up the one-sided, computer-generated calls without following certain rules could be hit with fines of up to $1,000 per violation--or up to $3,000 if those violations are found to be "willful."

The rules would look like this: No calls after 9 p.m. or before 8 a.m., no more than two calls to the same telephone number per day, no masking the robocaller's number or identity on caller ID tools, and no calls that fail to disclose a) that the call is recorded and b) who's behind it. That means that unless you're a late-night diner, it may not be possible to escape those dinnertime calls entirely, but you may at least have a better chance of screening them out.

The law would apply only to robocalls related to candidates running for federal office, including those placed by supporters and opponents alike. The rules would be effective only during certain time periods: the 60 days leading up to a general, special, or run-off election; and the 30 days leading up to a primary election, a caucus, or a political nominating convention.

The restrictions don't appear to have any bearing on calls delivered by live people who are, say, dialing from candidate-sponsored phone banks.

The bill is sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), and Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), who said they're reacting to rampant complaints from constituents bothered by robocall "abuse," including as many as 30 calls in a single night.

Arguably there's also a little self-interest at play on the politicians' part: The bill begins by proclaiming, "Abusive political robocalls harass voters and discourage them from participating in the political process."

Many states already have laws limiting robocalls or are considering enacting them. Colorado, for instance, is reportedly weighing at the moment.

Just last week, Congress voted to extend the federal Do-Not-Call registry, but political calls are specifically exempted from that mechanism, which allows Americans to opt out of receiving telemarketer calls.