WASHINGTON – A federal plan to stop many unwanted telemarketing calls this year with a national "do-not-call" list may be delayed because of opposition from key lawmakers.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Wednesday that he and other committee members were wary of approving the permanent funding sought by the Federal Trade Commission.
Tauzin said he was interested in supporting the registry as a pilot program that would be renewed if it appeared to work.
"We simply want to make sure it's done right," he said at a congressional briefing.
The FTC believes the do-not-call registry will cost about $16 million in its first year and would be paid for with fees collected from telemarketers. Collecting the fees requires congressional approval.
FTC Chairman Timothy Muris, testifying before the committee, agreed that funding the project for a couple years is a reasonable option, but unless approval comes soon the agency will not meet its goal of having the registry working by summer.
If approval does not come by early February, the program could be pushed back a year, FTC officials said.
Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said Tauzin does want to fund the registry for one year or two. He said the committee will try to approve money by the end of January and will "do everything we can to see that the program goes into effect this year."
The do-not-call list is part of revised federal telemarketing rules issued by the FTC last month.
Consumers could enroll in the free service using the Internet or a toll-free number. Telemarketers would have to check the list every three months to find out who does not want to be called. Those who call listed people could be fined up to $11,000 for each violation.
More than two dozen states already have their own do-not-call lists or pending legislation to create them. Muris said most states plan to add their lists to the FTC registry.
Lawmakers on the House committee universally praised the national do-not-call list, but voiced concerns about the FTC's limited authority to police telemarketing calls from certain industries, including airlines, banks and telephone companies.
Muris said the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees calls made by those industries, is working with the FTC and is considering adding its clout to the national registry.
Tauzin's concerns echo those made by the Direct Marketing Association, which represents telemarketers.
"The FTC acted prematurely in attempting to establish this list," said H. Robert Wientzen, the group's president. It said it may challenge the rules in court, contending they unlawfully restrict free speech.
The DMA spent at least $1.2 million on lobbying in the last Congress, according to reports compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan Web site that tracks political spending.
Charities, surveys and calls on behalf of politicians also would be exempt from the registry.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said he would a prefer a do-not-call list without those exemptions.
When Muris said a law passed by Congress prevents the FTC from dealing with political calls, Barton said: "We've seen the enemy and he's us."
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., called the do-not-call list "a giant step forward for consumers who are often plagued by unwanted, intrusive, unsolicited telemarketing."
Markey's remarks were interrupted by the loud ringing of his cell phone. Answering the call, he said "No, I don't want to change my phone service. How did you get my cell phone number? I'm in a congressional hearing right now."
Markey's staff said after the briefing that the congressman had turned up the volume on his phone and arranged to receive the call to make his point about intrusive telemarketing.