They’re at it again. After the bill previously failed to muster the votes necessary to pass, Congressional Democrats–this time apparently working with Republicans–are looking to close the “loophole” authorizing calls on government backed debt.
The cleverly titled bill Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone calls, AKA the “HANGUP Act,” is bad news for federal debt collectors and government contractors currently exempted from the TCPA’s robocall provisions. The Act seeks to remove the exemption and hold the government to the same general provisions of the TCPA requiring consent for any autodialed or prerecorded calls to a cell phone.
The federal government and its contractors have enjoyed a break from the TCPA thanks to a 2015 bipartisan budget agreement that included a small provision allowing them to use robocalling technology to collect debts owed to the U.S. The FCC followed suit in 2016 with the Broadnet et al. Declaratory Ruling. In that ruling, the FCC determined that government callers are not “persons” and are thus not subject to the TCPA. The HANGUP Act would repeal both the FCC’s ruling and the relevant provision in the 2015 budget agreement.
The HANGUP Act fell flat when introduced in the last two congressional sessions. But the bill has now been reintroduced a third time by a bipartisan team including Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) and House Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).
If passed, the Act will put the federal government in the same boat as other debt collectors, barring them from robocalling consumers without consent. The bill would open the government up to TCPA liability and create a whole new world of TCPA plaintiffs who owe debt on government loans—ranging from federal student loan programs to veterans loans and government-backed mortgages. With recent reports of more than 20% of federal student loans being in default, the HANGUP Act could have a major impact on the government’s debt collection practices, or leave the government subject to a wave of new TCPA exposure.
Notably, the 2015 TCPA amendment allowing the government to make debt collection calls is being leveraged in a major First Amendment challenge pending in the Ninth Circuit in Gallion v. Charter Communications, Inc., case no. 18-55667 (9th Cir). If Congress re-amends the TCPA to remove the content-specific exemption for government-backed debt calls, that Constitutionality challenge may erode. TCPAworld will keep a close eye on this for you.