For the regional Bells, last week was payback time.
After years of heavy financial support for Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the powerful new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee pushed through a bill he has championed unsuccessfully for two years, one that would give the Bells relief from significant portions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
Cast this year as H.R. 1542, the bill addressed regulations on broadband data services and let the Bells out of forced line-sharing arrangements, wholesale unbundling of high-speed data lines and restrictions on offering long-distance data traffic. After 12 hours of hearings and markups on Capitol Hill over two days, Tauzin steered the bill through its first vote nearly unscathed.
Tauzin managed to parry every attempt by critics to amend the bill, despite serious opposition from some members of his own party.
Sitting at the end of the lawmakers bench on Thursday, surrounded by aides, Tauzin deftly knocked down 15 amendments with a combination of well-placed promises and parliamentary jujitsu.
In five hours of work, only four amendments made it into the bill — two of them apparently worked out on the dais while debate raged. A pair of them appear to threaten the e-rate subsidy program; another sharply increases the fines the Federal Communications Commission can levy against violators of the Telecom Act to $1 million per offense; and the last prohibits the Bells from offering any voice telephony service over high-speed data lines. None of them dented any of the key aspects of the bill.
Critics say the bill lets the Bells escape competitive and regulatory pressures imposed by the Telecom Act, which took 10 years to craft. Both sides insist nothing less is at stake than the availability of broadband, the information technology industry and perhaps even the future of the economy.
The bill lifts restrictions the Bells have chafed under for five years. Tauzin repeatedly insisted the regulations were patently unfair because they didnt apply to the Bells chief broadband rivals: the cable companies.
To opponents, the Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act of 2001 is the death knell for competitive local exchange carrier competition. They expect the bill will put hundreds of Internet providers out of business and bring the teetering high-tech economy to a crashing halt.
Covad Communications Chairman Charles McGinn said bluntly: “If line-sharing is eliminated, Covad will have no choice but to withdraw from the residential market.” At the markup, however, Tauzin pledged to add language to the bill to keep line-sharing, but only for copper lines, not for newer fiber-optic ones.
For Tauzin, it was a sweet reward for having waited years to ascend to the committee chair and move a bill that is favored by companies like BellSouth, with which Tauzin has close financial and personal ties.
“Had we had a different modus operandi over the last six years, this bill might already have been passed,” Tauzin said. “I was not even permitted, under the last leadership of this committee, to mark up my own bill.”
While the Bells and Tauzin were pleased with the outcome, many lawmakers and industry critics were angry with the way Tauzin rushed the bill along. The markup was slated for just 16 hours after a Wednesday hearing on the bill, itself scheduled only four days previously. While the bills language was little different than a 1999 version, the timing of the markup gave opponents only a few hours to draft amendments.
“How can we know [whats in] the amendments that were not ready until two or three in the morning?” complained Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., who called the bill “a sham” during the Wednesday hearing.
Tauzin took advantage of the late-night work to force most of the amendments off the table — in one case, suggesting Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., withdraw her amendment because of a missing punctuation mark. But he also cajoled many lawmakers into pulling their amendments voluntarily, pledging to work with them on different language to account for some of their concerns.
“As Jerry Maguire said, “Help me to help you”,” Tauzin said to Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., in getting him to withdraw an amendment.
But the ranking member of the subcommittee, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., responded that there was something else at work.
“I think the chairman has the right movie but the wrong character,” he said. “Cuba Gooding Jr. says, “Show me the money.” And thats what this is all about: the money.”
The next step for the bill is a full-committee markup, which even opponents believe Tauzin will win by a somewhat bigger margin than in the subcommittee. That would be followed within several weeks by a floor vote in the House, which is expected to go heavily in its favor. But the bill faces serious hurdles in the Senate.
Tauzin said he has been told Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Tauzins Senate counterpart, is willing “to process the bill” if it passed the House. But Tauzin acknowledged he has yet to talk to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., about the bill, and Lott has opposed such a measure before.
Markey said he will continue to oppose the bill as it stands for giving too much away to Tauzins Bell allies.
“Theyre recovering monopolists,” Markey said. “You have to make sure they stay in the program.”