Tauzin, Hollings Duel over Bells in Senate Commerce Committee

Senators fight over Bell broadband deregulation while the FCC is already doing it.

WASHINGTON — Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) today brought his Bell-deregulation act before a harsh critic: Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), a Southerner as ornery and eloquent as Tauzin and staunchly opposed to it.

Tauzin and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the chairman and ranking member of the House Commerce Committee, were pitching their bill (H.R. 1542), which would largely deregulate Bell broadband networks, in unfriendly territory, and they knew it. Even though the bill sailed through the House on Feb. 27 by a vote of 273 to 157, they were there on sufferance, supporting it before a committee whose chairman, Hollings, hated it and whose ranking minority member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has kept it at arms length.

The hearing began with agreement among all committee members that they were in favor of more broadband, never a hard position to take. And all professed undying respect for Tauzin and Dingell. Unlike the U.K. House of Commons, which runs on ritual, and thus rarely heartfelt, insults, the U.S. Congress runs on ritual, and thus often insincere, compliments — and Hollings kicked off the festivities with a backhanded one.

"Ive said time and time again, the only thing I like about 1542 are the authors," Hollings said. "There are no two finer congressmen."

Facing a compliment so fulsome, Tauzin knew he was in trouble.

"We didnt come to blaspheme," he opened his testimony in an effort to spike Hollings guns. "We didnt come to do anything but agree with you ... We certainly dont expect the Tyson-Lewis fight here. Your ears are safe, and so, I hope, are ours."

Tauzin pitched the bill effectively, promising 1.2 million new jobs, a boom in DSL investment, and widespread customer choice between DSL and cable Internet providers. He also beat off suggestions that competitive carriers would suffer if the bill passed. "That, Mr. Chairman, is simply not true," he said. "Ill say it again: Its not true."

Although a few members of the committee, including Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and John Breaux, a Democrat from Tauzins home state, supported the bill, many others opposed it, although they said they were willing to work with Tauzin and Dingell on the issue.

Some senators said the bill, at least as now written, was dead on arrival. "This bill is not going to pass in its current form.," said John Kerry (D-Mass.). Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said, "Simply, the bill in its current form is not going to pass the U.S. Senate."

Tauzin told them that the bill had changed in its passage through the House and its committees. He touted the Upton amendment, which would multiply the fines available to the Federal Communications Commission by 10, 20 in the case of repeat offenders, and the Buyer-Towns amendment, which gives CLECs a watered-down version of their desired changes to the bill. That amendment passed the House "after a rather tricky parliamentary attempt to keep us from offering it," Tauzin said in a true, but breathtakingly misleading, statement. [Go here for the details of the House debate.]

In any case, Tauzin and Dingell told the senators they did not consider the bill to be written in stone. "If we havent done it the way you want to do it, find a better way," he said. "But find a way."

Dingell exhibited his usual hostility toward competitive carriers, recently shown when he called them "parasites" on the House floor. Some CLECs support the bill, he said, although warning the senators to expect many CLEC complaints.

"We have protected the rights of CLECs," Dingell said. "Those who are getting a free ride today will continue to get a free ride on the things on which theyre getting a free ride," he said, leaving the senators free to suspect that CLECs were getting a free ride.

Hollings, visibly riled, disputed the notions that the CLECs were freeloaders ("They have not had an unfair advantage, or whatever the gentleman said. In fact, most of them are on the ropes") and that the Bells faced serious hurdles to broadband deployment ("The Bell companies are in there like gangbusters right now").

If Tauzin was misleading on the Buyer-Towns amendment, Hollings was positively surreal in his characterization of the cable operators who now dominate (70% market share) residential broadband, repeatedly referring to them as "the poor little cable companies." (Stop picking on AOL Time Warner, Comcast and AT&T Broadband!) Meanwhile, outside the building, Washingtons fabled and traditional Cherry Blossom Festival was now brought to you by Comcast, as signs on every light pole attested.

"The nearest thing to immortality on Earth is a Bell company," Hollings said. "The poor little cable companies down where I am have a 5-year contract, and are trying to get a 10-year contract." In other words, the debate came down to a dispute over who had the bigger monopoly (Yours is bigger than mine!)

Despite declarations that the bill was dead, the outlines of at least one potential compromise was already evident. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) flayed Tauzin for opposing language in the current farm bill that would allow the Rural Utilities Service to provide loan guarantees for rural broadband deployment. Tauzin said he opposed it because the House Commerce Committee, not the Agriculture Committee, was the appropriate place for broadband policy to be drafted.

"Dont fiddle with my RUS here," Burns said. "Ive got my pistol cocked on this."

The RUS battle may give Tauzin leverage to fight for a watered-down version of his bill to clear the Senate committee. The fact that McCain, who has expressed doubts about Tauzin-Dingell, declined in his opening statement to oppose it outright may also be a sign of impending compromise.

Meanwhile, however, few days remain in the legislative year, and the Tauzin-Dingell Bill is rapidly being overtaken by events at the FCC.

Tauzin also faces a Senate oversaturated with advertising on both sides of the issue, which has blanketed the D.C. airwaves.

"I must say, Im tired of standing in front of my mirror shaving every day, hearing about Tauzin-Dingell on the radio," Dorgan said.