Chances for broadband deregulation legislation during this session of Congress are slim, but the dim prospects aren't stopping House lawmakers from bickering over the bill anyway.
Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee asked Republican leaders to rewrite a Commerce Committee bill that would allow regional Bell phone monopolies to offer Internet backbone and other interstate data services without first opening their local markets to telephone competition. The Judiciary Committee approved by voice vote a version that, like the Commerce Committee version, would eliminate RBOCs' need for FCC approval for entering long distance data services. Unlike the Commerce version the oversight would transfer to the Justice Department's anti-trust staff.
The Commerce Committee version, sponsored by panel chairman Billy Tauzin (R-.La.) and top Democrat John Dingell (D-Mich.) would let the Bells into long distance data without any regulatory approval.
With both committee's now predicting victory for their version, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ohio) and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) are in the difficult position of choosing between competing bills, each of which has significant support among their GOP rank and file. The Rules Committee is expected to take up the legislation June 18.
This fight has as much to do with turf battles between the two committees as it does with public policy. Many Judiciary Committee members were angered that Hastert limited their right to amend the bill to strictly matters involving the Justice Department's anti-trust authority. Now, Hastert must decide whether the Judiciary went too far by giving Justice new regulatory powers beyond its traditional antitrust role. "The Judiciary Committee might as well have tacked on a white flag of surrender," said Ken Johnson, Tauzin's spokesman. "There's no chance this will pass the parliamentary process."
But the Bell companies' critics also claimed victory and predicted that House leaders will not want to bring the bill to a full House vote given the sharp differences of opinion. "The debate would look pretty ugly on the floor," said Julian Epstein, the Judiciary Committee's counsel. - Bill McConnell