WASHINGTON – Congress took the first steps Tuesday to ensure that people who registered for the national Do Not Call list won't be inundated next year with telemarketing calls at dinnertime.
At separate House and Senate committee sessions, lawmakers passed legislation that makes most of the 145 million phone numbers on the list permanent by eliminating a five-year expiration date established by the Federal Trade Commission, which administers the program.
The Associated Press reported last month that millions of phone numbers on the registry would start dropping off beginning next summer unless people re-registered.
Reversing course, the FTC announced last week that it would not purge expired numbers while Congress considers making the phone listings permanent.
A measure sponsored by Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday and will be sent to the full House for a vote.
Doyle said his legislation would give millions of Americans "a little much-needed peace and quiet."
The House committee also approved a bill, sponsored by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., that extends the authority of the FTC to collect fees from telemarketers. That authority expired last month.
In the Senate, a measure similar to the Doyle bill cleared the Commerce Committee. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who sponsored the bill, said it would prevent phones from starting to ring again at supper time. The bill heads to the full Senate for a vote.
Last month, the FTC had said the expiration date was needed to account for changes, such as people who move and switch their phone numbers. Critics complained, pointing out that the list is already scrubbed each month of numbers that have been disconnected and reassigned to new customers. Doyle's bill would require purges by the FTC twice a month.
David Certner, legal policy director at AARP, says many people don't know about the need to re-register every five years. So the legislation, he says, is important.
"People don't want these unwanted calls," Certner said. "For an older person, sometimes it's more than just a bother. It can be a great inconvenience to try to get to a phone only to find out it's simply a call you don't want to receive in the first place."
Linda Stevenson of West Chester, Pa. placed her phone numbers on the Do Not Call list in the early days of the program. She thinks the legislation is a good idea.
"When someone comes to your door, they knock on your door. They just don't come in and sell to you automatically," Stevenson said. "It's nice that it is assumed the number is permanent and then you opt out."
The Senate and House bills would end the five-year expirations, but people who want to remove their numbers from the Do Not Call list would still be permitted to do so.
The registry prohibits telemarketers from calling phone numbers on the list. Companies face fines of up to $11,000 for each violation. Organizations engaged in charitable, political or survey work are exempt. Companies that have an established business relationship with a customer also may call for up to 18 months after the last purchase, payment or delivery.
Polls have found consumers reporting far fewer unwanted phone calls. Still, some telemarketers continue to violate the law.
Since the registry began in June 2003, the government has filed cases against about 30 companies, resulting in $8.8 million in civil penalties and $8.6 million in redress to consumers and forfeitures.
Most of the penalties were paid by satellite television provider DirecTV Inc., as part of a $5.3 million settlement — the largest in the program's history.
Telemarketers are required to pay an annual subscription fee to access the list so those numbers can be blocked from their dial-out programs. The companies also must update their own calling lists every 31 days to ensure there are no numbers from the registry on them.