The House Judiciary Committee is asking for authority to review and amend a major telecommunications bill that, among its provisions, would allow new entrants to provide cable-TV service without obtaining local governmental approvals.
The request came in a draft letter sent last week to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) from the staff of House Judiciary chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a House source said Tuesday.
The letter, the House source said, explained at length Judiciary’s jurisdiction over the bill and the legitimacy of its claim for a sequential referral.
House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) rejected numerous amendments they otherwise considered meritorious because they feared that the additions would trigger a referral to Judiciary and take their telecommunications bill off the fast track.
Another concern: Judiciary might add tougher network-neutrality language to the bill. After a bruising battle, Barton and Upton helped to defeat amendments in Energy and Commerce that would have banned broadband-access providers from demanding fees from Web-based content, search and digital-voice providers in exchange for quality-of-service guarantees.
Last week, Rep. Rich Boucher (D-Va.) -- the only House member with seats on both Energy and Commerce and Judiciary -- said he was working with Judiciary member Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) on network-neutrality legislation that would use antitrust law to institute the ban on fees rejected by Energy and Commerce.
Barton, chief sponsor of the bill (H.R. 5252), moved the bill out of his committee last Wednesday on a 42-12 vote. Barton and Upton are hoping that the bill will be debated on the House floor next Wednesday or Thursday.
At an appearance Tuesday, Upton repeated his and Barton’s opposition to a Judiciary Committee referral.
“The [House] parliamentaries are looking over every provision of the bill,” Upton said at a forum hosted by National Journal’s Technology Daily. “Clearly, if [Sensenbrenner] gets it, it will delay it. It won’t be on the floor next week. That’s the way things work.”
The Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over the nation’s antitrust laws. The panel has kept a close eye on the Baby Bell phone companies since the 1984 breakup of AT&T Corp. as a result of the Justice Department antitrust suit against the local and long-distance phone monopoly.
With the legislative calendar shortened by election-year concerns, Barton and Upton want to expedite full House consideration of the telecommunications bill.
“I would like to think [that Judiciary] won’t get a joint referral, but we’ll see,” Upton said. “I have not talked to the speaker directly about this but will do so this week.”