Building a Record: House Subcommittee Plumbs Depths Of Legislative Solutions To Illegal Robocalls

Over the course of two and a half hours yesterday morning, nineteen members of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee (ten Democrats and nine Republicans), including the Chairman and Ranking Member of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, participated in the hearing entitled, “Legislating To Stop The Onslaught Of Annoying Robocalls.” The feature-length consideration of potential legislative solutions to the phenomenon of scammed and spoofed robocalls is available for viewing here.

The witnesses dwelled on a range of issues, starting with David Summit’s recounting the impact of such robocalls on communications at a major medical facility, the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Florida.

Next, Margot Saunders of the National Consumer Law Center largely reiterated her recent Senate testimony that a majority of offending robocalls are precipitated by major American corporations.

She again warned about the prospect that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would “loosen restrictions on robocalls” so that no autodialing equipment would be covered by the restrictions of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Patrick Halley of USTelecom – The Broadband Association laid out call authentication technologies, robocall mitigation tools and traceback efforts for reducing illegal robocalls.

He also strongly advocated that more criminal enforcement was necessary to go after illegal robocallers.

Finally, Aaron Foss, the founder of Nomorobo whose idea for stopping robocalls was heralded by the Federal Trade Commission some six years ago, explained how the company had recently released information on active IRS call-back scammers.

As we previously noted, advanced billing for the hearing listed seven different legislative proposals open for consideration. The witnesses and several other Members present supported Chairman Frank Pallone’s (D-NJ) “Stopping Bad Robocalls Act” (H.R. 946). It currently has forty-two Democratic co-sponsors. His bill contains a broad definition of equipment that would be linked to robocalls. Chairman Pallone noted that the FCC “is currently studying how it could address its own interpretation of the term autodialer, and as part of that proceeding, the FCC could begin to fix the problem on its own.  When coming to a resolution, I would urge the Commission to put consumers first in this matter so that Congress doesn’t have to redo its work.” The full Committee’s Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) observed that the robocall issue likely would be raised with the FCC, which is reportedly expected to appear before the Committee this month.

Ranking Member Bob Latta’s (R-OH) only just introduced “STOP Robocalls Act” (H.R. 2386) also drew attention. The bill, which Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) joined as lead co-sponsor, would, among other things, permit carriers to offer consumers access to robocall blocking technology on an opt-out basis.

Amidst all the condemnation of illegal spoofed and scam robocalls, there was some bi-partisan allowance that there were “legitimate” calls that should not be blocked. Chairman Doyle in his opening statement alluded to legitimate alerts and reminders. Ranking Member Latta mentioned financial services, schools and medical-related calls. Congressman Bill Johnson (R-OH) used the term “legitimate business communications,” again referring to potential blocking of health care, financial situations, school closings and fraud alerts. Congressmen Donald McEachin (D-VA) and Gus Bilirakis (R-FLA) made similar references. At one point even Mr. Foss observed to Mr. Johnson that nobody wants the “good calls to stop.”

Precisely where this will lead legislatively in the Energy and Commerce Committee is unclear at this juncture, although there is clearly bi-partisan support for legislation. The hearing record will remain open for responses to questions for the record. The Subcommittee will have to sort through the various proposals and perhaps meld some of them into a single legislative package. After the hearing, Chairman Doyle reportedly stated that an as-yet-unscheduled markup session was likely “sometime in the near future.”

By then, the Energy and Commerce Committee may also have on its plate the TRACED Act (S. 151) assuming it has been passed by the Senate. The TRACED Act now has sixty-four supporters in that body. There is a House version of that bill, H.R. 2015, pending before the Committee, but it was not on the list for consideration/discussion yesterday.

In the meantime, two more TCPA-related bills were introduced in the Senate yesterday. As promised several weeks ago, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced S. 1241 to expand the private right of action under the TCPA for calls in violation of the Do Not Call Rules. He was joined by five Democratic colleagues on the bill. In addition, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) dropped S. 1239 into the legislative hopper, which, among other things, requires the FCC to establish a division in its Enforcement Bureau to focus on robocalls, like Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s (D-CA) pending H.R. 2355, which was on yesterday’s hearing list.

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