Congress Quickly Passes Do-Not-Call Bill

Sep 25, 2003 (10:09 AM EDT)

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- A united Congress raced through legislation Thursday intended to ensure that the national "do-not-call" list goes into effect as scheduled next week, allowing people to block many unwanted telemarketing sales pitches.

The House voted 412-8 for a bill making clear that the Federal Trade Commission has the power to enforce the list. The Senate voted 95-0 several hours later. President Bush plans to sign the measure, his spokesman said.

The legislation was prompted by a federal judge's ruling Tuesday that the agency lacked the power to create and operate the registry.

The list, which is supposed to be effective on Wednesday, had overwhelming support in Congress. But its immediate future remained in doubt after U.S. District Court Judge Lee R. West in Oklahoma City rejected the FTC's request to delay his ruling. The FTC immediately appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Even if Bush signs the legislation, the FTC must win its appeal to reverse West's decision. A new law would give the agency considerable leverage in its legal fight.

In debate before the votes, lawmakers from both parties criticized West's response to a lawsuit brought by telemarketers, which claim the list infringes on free speech rights and will devastate the industry.

"Clearly the court's decision was misguided. The measure before us makes crystal clear the commission can and should proceed with the do-not-call list," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He said the ruling has "served as a rallying cry for the tens of millions of American households who signed up for the registry."

Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he is confident West's decision will be overturned.

"We should probably call the bill 'This Time We Really Mean It Act' to cure any myopia in the judicial branch," he said.

In response to the court ruling, lawmakers quickly wrote the bills and passed them with unusual speed. That underscored the popularity of the list, which after fewer than four months already has nearly 51 million numbers.

"This legislation got to the House floor faster than a consumer can hang up on a telemarketer at dinnertime," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said no one likes "hopping up and down like jackrabbits to answer the phone and then hear somebody on the phone try to sell you something. It drives you crazy."

The FTC expects the list to block 80 percent of telemarketing calls. Exemptions include calls from charities, pollsters and on behalf of politicians.

The FTC's rules require telemarketers to check the list every three months to see who does not want to be called. Those who call listed people could be fined up to $11,000 for each violation. Consumers would file complaints to an automated phone or online system.

West rejected the FTC's request to block his order, saying the agency offered no additional evidence that would make him change his mind.

The FTC is moving ahead with the list despite the ruling and is encouraging consumers to continue signing up.

Telemarketers say the list would severely harm their industry and lead to the loss of thousands of jobs. Still, the Direct Marketing Association, one of the groups that challenged the registry, said it has asked its members to obey the wishes of those who have enrolled in the registry.

"It is appropriate for marketers to respect the wishes of consumers," said H. Robert Wientzen, the association's president.

Since the FTC opened the do-not-call list for registration in June, people have submitted 31.1 million phone numbers at the Web site and 10.9 million by calling toll-free at 1-888-382-1222. An additional 8.6 million numbers were transferred from existing state lists.

There are about 166 million residential phone numbers in the United States and an additional 150 million cell phone numbers.