Jacking in from the "Senatorial Hi-jinks" Port:

Capitol Hill, Senate Gallery -- One hundred of the nation's most powerful men and women beat the shit out of you today and you don't even know it.

But you will. If the Senate passes what it thinks is the deregulatory package of telecommunications reforms it's now voting on, your cable bill will go up. Your local telephone bill will go up. Your long distance bill will go up. Hell, your dog might even get pregnant.

During what has become a torturously slow debate, one after another pro-consumer amendments are brought to the floor, bludgeoned by bone-head Senators and defeated.

But Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), from whose committee this bill was spawned, disagrees: "I guarantee that with this bill you'll have lower cable prices, lower DBS (direct broadcast satellite) prices, lower local phone prices and lower long distance." Will you resign your seat in the Senate if your "guarantee" proves false, Senator Pressler? No answer...

A sample of how the consumer has taken it on the chin during this debate:

If these companies are unhappy about states and cities excercising their what amounts to soverign rights, all they have to do is ask the FCC, in Washington, DC, to allow them to "go ahead." They can and will. Period. End of story.

And you're left with the traffic jams, the noise and seeing your kids' schools not get fixed up and repainted because the "information highway" crowd was too busy, well, making way for its fiber optic golden goose.

And in the biggest struggle in the debate to date, the Senate defeated, by a vote of 57-43, an amendment that would have given the Department of Justice a role in deciding whether a local market is competitive enough to allow all hell to break loose by ending the majority of restrictions now placed on the Baby Bells.

It's easy to see why those Senators voting this amendment down did so: Why have the government's most experienced competition lawyers, those in the Antitrust Division, make such decisions?

Nah, just let the overworked and understaffed FCC make antitrust decisions. Don't you love the logic of these guys?

Sen. Bob Kerry (D-Neb.) argued to the bitter end that not giving Justice a role was just plain idiotic. He reasoned that Justice had to be a part of this bill because it was the agency most used to dealing with the Monopoly minded corporations driving the entire process. "The American people didn't ask for this bill," he said. "It was the large corporations. The least we can do is protect one of the last pro-consumer provisions of this bill and makes sure that Justice is watching out for the subscribers," he said.

In last year's bill, which was killed only at the last moment, this same amendment was part of a widely supported bill! What happened to all those Senators who supported the Justice role last year? Kerry demanded of his colleagues.

When Kerry shot this rhetorical dart at Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), this paragon of wisdom coughed up a hairball: "That was a whole year ago."

My how time files.

We're talking about billions and billions of dollars here. At stake are YOUR local telephone rates, YOUR long distance rates and YOUR cable rates. Isn't it prudent to give the nation's Antitrust division at crack at overseeing this? Not according to Senator Pressler.

Pressler argued that giving Justice a larger role would only "turn them into regulators." Besides, he argued, the Justice Department still had all its antitrust tools intact and could use them at any time. But it would be the FCC's main gig, Pressler acknowledged, with Justice sitting on the sidelines unless called on.

Not surprising, the army of lobbyists for the Baby Bells were sweating this vote. In the end, they won. A lot of smiling lawyers in D.C. swilling imported beer last night.

In the Halls of Indecency

Far away from the glaring lights of C-Span 2's never blinking eye, which beams the debate into the homes of political junkies and cubicles of bleary eyed reporters everywhere, a drama of indecent proportions was shaping up.

Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.), the father of the bastardized Communications Decency Act, a provision that essentially criminalizes "indecent" and "obscene" speech on the Internet, was running scared.

After having offered some technical corrections on Friday (June 9) to amend his original language, he caught wind that an amendment to be offered by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was growing legs.

Leahy's amendment is a silver bullet: It kills Exon. Okay, okay... It kills the Exon amendment.

But the votes for Leahy are soft; who the hell wants to vote against "decency" after all? Earlier in the day the Senate voted 100-0 to mandate that cable companies have to scramble their adult channels to the level that one sees only snow and hears nothing by "hiss." It was championed as "decency" amendment.

Exon, looking for white knight, found him: Dan Coats (R-Ind.)

Exon now plans to amend his Decency Act yet again. This time he is attaching an amendment by Coats to its ass-end. What does Coats do? Well it bans ambiguously defined "indecent" programming from being shown on cable systems. In other words, show NYPD Blue, go to jail.

This little amendment probably wont sit good with ABC, NBC or CBS which cable companies, by law, are required to carry.

But... but... "we can't!" the cable companies will cry. And the networks will cry "lawsuit" and "unconstitutional" and ... well, there's a reason the political hacks up call this bill the "Lawyers Full Employment Act of 1995."

How did Dispatch scoop this? While skulking in the hall outside the Senate chamber, what do I see? A Leahy staffer with furrowed brow in a huddle with the entire staff, or so it seemed, of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the renegade group that spilt off from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, following the lead of former EFF Executive Director Jerry Berman, who now holds that position for CDT.

There were worried brows and pursed lips all around. "Ummm... this could be something good," I thought to myself, strategically wedging myself into the huddle, all ears.

But the conversation burped. A sentence from the Leahy staffer lurched forward and was snapped back like a dog lapping up his own drool.

"Brock, Brock... ah, can you move on... can you just...." CDT's Janlori Goldman pleaded, as if my presence had suddenly fucked up a negotiating session that carried the importance of the Strategic Arms Talks.

The Huddle huddled closer, squeezing me out. "Some democracy, I know," offered Goldman. Another CDT staffer pulled me aside on the stairs and gave me the dirt on the Exon shift. Goldman later apologized. "It's getting a little tense around here," she said, winning the door prize for the understatement of the day.

Why the tension? Exon had apparently pulled a procedural fast one. He hadn't told Leahy, hell, hadn't told *anyone* about his shift. And now, the Leahy crowd, conferring with CDT and scrambling for a strategy. [As a side note, CDT was the only advocacy group I recognized that day; no ACLU, no EFF, no nobody.]

What was the fear in those halls? That Exon would submit his new amendment with Coats attached and that would leave Leahy with this ass twisting in the wind, going nowhere. Why? Leahy's amendment, you'll recall, is a "smart bomb" aimed only at the *Exon* language, NOT the new Exon-Coats amendment.

Having not seen the Exon/Coats amendment, Leahy would have no time to respond before it was brought to the floor.

Very tense times all afternoon. And then reprieve.

The Senate closed up shop around 9:30 last night, agreeing to come back today. Exon's amendment wasn't offered, but it now gives Leahy a chance to craft some kind of response.

What will that response be? Can't tell you... yet. I have to find a certain huddle of Senatorial staff and civil liberty types... maybe this time they'll let me listen in on the play calling.

Meeks out...


Copyright © 1995 CyberWire Dispatch / Brock N. Meeks <brock@well.com>