‘Phantom Congressman’ Inspires Net Legislation

In order to kill an e-mail rumor that would not die, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this week prohibiting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from levying any additional charges on consumers for Internet access.

The FCC says it had no plans to do so, but amid the frenzy of Internet-related bills moving through Congress this month, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan) and House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-Virginia) promoted the surcharge prohibition as an extra safeguard.

The House passed the Internet Access Charge Prohibition Act of 1999 (H.R. 1291) by voice vote after about 40 minutes of discussion. There was little actual debate, because no one could muster an argument against a bill that would not alter the current state of affairs in any way.

A Bill in Time Saves Nine

The measure is actually one of about a dozen recommendations presented to Congress last month by the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce (ACEC) after it spent 10 months examining all of the political and consumer issues related to doing business online.

Concern over telephone access fees blossomed after an e-mail started circulating last year, claiming that a member of Congress had introduced a bill authorizing such a charge as a way to raise money for the federal government. The name of the congressman who supposedly authored the bill is fictitious, and in fact, such a bill was never introduced.

Nevertheless, Republicans argued, action was necessary to preclude the possibility that a real lawmaker would come up with such a scheme. “Consumers are right to be concerned. While it is true that Internet service providers are currently exempt from having to pay access charges, the FCC could always change its mind,” Bliley said.


While decrying the Republicans’ preoccupation with a fictitious threat, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, also lent his support for H.R. 1291.

According to Dingell, the bill “is intended to make sure that when an individual logs on to the Internet, he or she will not be charged by the minute for the privilege of doing so. That is a worthy goal, and I support it.”

Dingell added, “I only hope that passage of H.R. 1291 will finally extinguish this ‘cyber-myth’ once and for all. I am not convinced, however, that mounting a massive legislative counterattack on a fictitious bill, introduced by a make-believe Congressman, is the best use of this Committee’s time, or that of the House.”

Internet Bills on Parade

The FCC bill and a slew of related measures are moving through Congress this month. As reported in the E-Commerce Times, the House passed a five-year extension of the current Internet tax moratorium last week and plans to take up a bill addressing the three percent excise tax on telephone service next week.

The bills are part of a Republican-orchestrated parade of high-tech measures being considered this spring to demonstrate the GOP’s support for technology and its impact on the U.S. economy as a whole.

The Clinton administration — presidential candidate Al Gore in particular — has been taking credit for the country’s tech-driven economic expansion that has continued throughout Clinton’s seven years in office.

Though he offered his support for the FCC bill, Dingell used the occasion to blast the Republicans for grandstanding. “My puzzlement extends further to the speed with which the Republican leadership wants this bill to go to the floor,” he said. “I find it amazing that a phantom Congressman has more success jump-starting the legislative process than those of us elected by the people.”

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