Technology bills fall short in Congress

Despite a frantic rush to pass numerous Internet and telecom bills in the final days of this Congress, it appears few will find their way into law.

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WASHINGTON--The annual congressional circus of debating bills at the last minute with little or no formal reflection is here again, but this time Internet and telecom issues are taking center stage.

The only bills Congress is required to pass each year are the ones that fund federal agencies and programs. Because these must pass, and because the president can't veto only portions of a bill, autumn on Capitol Hill means members scrambling to attach their favored legislation to these

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Capitol Hill's unfinished business
Patrick Ross, reporter, CNET News.com
spending packages, regardless of how relevant the attachments may be to the overall bill.

During this Congress, more than in any other, members have begun to focus on the Internet as well as the more traditional telecom markets. Though the vast majority of Internet-related bills introduced in the last two years have failed to stand up to the close scrutiny of hearings and committee debates known as markups, that isn't stopping the failed bills' sponsors from trying to attach them to spending bills.

"There are a lot of telecom riders this year," said one Senate staffer, "but then again there were a lot of telecom and Internet bills introduced, too." Riders are bills attached to spending packages.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and chairman of the Commerce Committee, had been unable to move his bill requiring schools and libraries receiving federal funding for technology to obtain at their cost filtering equipment to protect children online. So this summer he successfully added it to the large spending package that includes the Education Department.

That provision appears to have survived a conference with leaders of the House spending bill, and it is expected to be voted on and approved early next week. In fact, McCain's filtering bill may be one of the only riders to make it all the way into law.

Of note is the fact that McCain--despite succeeding with a rider--is one of Congress' leading opponents of the tactic.

When McCain criticizes riders, "he's not commenting on the merits of the item," said spokeswoman Pia Pialorsi. Rather, he expresses dismay that legislation can become law without undergoing the scrutiny of an authorizing committee, she said.

That attitude has been in full force as McCain has sought to block his Commerce Committee colleague Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., from succeeding with a rider that would block regulatory approval of Deutsche Telekom's purchase of VoiceStream Wireless.

"Because most telecommunications policy matters present complex economic and technical issues, I believe it is unwise to resolve them in the appropriations process without prior consideration by the expert committee of jurisdiction," McCain wrote in a recent letter on the rider.

Another bill has moved on to the president after a recent Senate victory. see related story: Congressmen press for 3G wireless The federal telephone excise tax, a mandatory 3 percent fee on all phone lines that was passed to fund the Spanish-American War of 1898, was repealed. Past efforts to repeal the tax had failed, because it generates about $6 billion annually for the U.S. treasury.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Wednesday that he believed the provision had been removed in a conference with the House. Hollings won't comment on the status of the bill.

In some cases, competing lobbies apparently succeeded in sabotaging their own initiatives by seeking to block others.

For example, AT&T was working with Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to insert legislation increasing national ownership limits on cable systems. With the purchase of TCI and MediaOne, AT&T is over the cap and under a deadline to sell systems.

Bell companies oppose that effort. The president of their trade association, Gary Lytle, Thursday wrote Hill leaders that such a bill would provide AT&T "with a near-nationwide cable monopoly." Pointing out that it was being proposed as a rider, Lytle noted "there has been no public airing of the consumer implications of this issue. Neither the House nor the Senate has held a single hearing on the matter, nor has any legislation been introduced."

The Bells, in turn, have pushed hard for a bill that would spare them from paying connection fees when see related story: D.C. skeptical about foreign buyers transferring calls to Internet service providers. Cable companies are joined by many other lobbies in opposing those efforts.

"The net result is that these two lobbying groups are canceling each other out and probably neither rider will move," said one Hill staffer familiar with the conference deliberations.

Other lobbying efforts have fallen short. NextWave Telecom--the bankrupt wireless provider fighting hard on the Hill, at the FCC and in the courts to hold on to its licenses despite defaulting on bills owed to the federal government--has been unable to convince appropriations leaders to support legislation that would allow it to keep the licenses.

Instead, the issue apparently will be left to the courts, which have been ruling against NextWave of late.

House Internet Caucus Co-Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., continues to cajole the House leadership for an up-or-down vote on his bill to restrict Internet gambling. A similar bill passed the Senate easily last year, but exemptions for horse and dog racing and jai alai have led to some opposition in the House.

Goodlatte's bill actually received a majority of the vote on the House floor earlier this year. Unfortunately for him, the bill was introduced in a way that blocked amendments but required a two-thirds vote for passage, a hurdle Goodlatte couldn't clear.

"We're optimistic the leadership will find time for another vote before Congress adjourns," said Goodlatte spokeswoman Michelle Semones. She may be right. Congress was supposed to adjourn Oct. 6, but now it has just given itself its third extension, to Oct. 25, less than two weeks before members are up for re-election.

This summer the House passed a bill that would have extended the moratorium on discriminatory Internet taxes until 2006, but multiple versions of the bill had been filed with the Senate Commerce Committee, and McCain now seems inclined to allow the issue to wait until next year. The current moratorium doesn't expire until October 2001.

The House also passed a bill that places mild restrictions on junk email, or "spam," but an assortment of objections in the Senate, including objections to the class-action suits that would be permitted against spammers, have stalled that bill, probably for good, in this Congress.

Despite the strong interest in online privacy among House members, there aren't any significant privacy bills being attached to spending packages. Remarkably, leading senators and House representatives have said in recent weeks that the issue is so important that more time is needed, but action is all but guaranteed early next year.