POLITICO: Robocall crackdown sails through the impeachment noise

The measure would require phone companies to verify callers' identities.

by John Hendel, POLITICO

Robocalls have seemingly done the impossible: Unite a toxically divided Washington.

A sweeping 417-3 House vote Wednesday left Congress on the verge of passing legislation aimed at knocking back the billions of unwanted automated phone calls that torment Americans each month, amid hopes the Senate can send the measure to President Donald Trump by Christmas.

The vote — on the same day the Judiciary Committee launched its first impeachment hearing of the president — is a rare point of bipartisan harmony in a Congress that has struggled to enact legislation of any substance lately, from keeping the government open to repairing America’s broken infrastructure. And the reason is simple: People hate these calls.

“It’s a pain in the neck to everybody — it don’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told POLITICO. “It’s one of those issues that’s totally bipartisan because everybody is impacted by this BS. I can’t tell you how many of them I got this weekend. It’s crazy.”

Robocalls have interrupted members of Congress in the midst of hearings. They have enraged constituents and spurred myriad complaints to lawmakers. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, once ignored a call from Trump over fears it was a robocall. Even Democratic presidential contenders Andrew Yang and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have name-checked the fight against the scourge in their campaign platforms.

Even amid today’s dysfunction, Congress hopes it can help.

So what exactly would this legislation do?

The deal, known as the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act, took months of wrangling among Republicans and Democrats to land on the current 44-page text.

It aims to tackle robocalls in several ways, notably by requiring phone companies to verify where phone calls are coming from and let consumers block them at no additional cost. It would also boost the enforcement powers of the Federal Communications Commission and direct the Justice Department to convene a working group to make sure robocall violations are prosecuted.

The bill specifically targets the so-called One Ring Scam, in which scammers dial from a fake phone number and let it ring once in a ploy to get the consumer to call back, often saddling the person with hefty fees for dialing a foreign line. It directs the FCC to come up with regulations to help protect consumers from this scheme within four months.

The legislation also mandates various government reports to check in on implementation of these robocall measures and on enforcement.

How bad is the problem?

The eye-popping number of unwanted robocalls is getting worse, fed by inexpensive voice-over-internet phone services that make it easy for scammers to dial from abroad. Americans were hit last year with nearly 48 billion robocalls, according to the call-blocking firm YouMail, which says 2019 has already topped that tally. In October, Americans received about 5.7 billion of the calls. Robocalls have long topped the lists of consumer complaints at the FCC and Federal Trade Commission.

Enter a Congress looking for a legislative win.

Both the Senate and House quickly seized on the issue this year, though they originally took different approaches. The Senate voted 97-1 for robocall-fighting legislation in May that would force phone companies to identify spam calls to consumers, increase fines for illegal robocalls and extend the statute of limitations for prosecutions. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) subsequently gambled on a broader proposal addressing issues like call blocking that culminated in a 429-3 floor passage in July.

Lawmakers spent the past several months settling differences between these two popular measures and unveiled the new compromise in recent weeks.

What else needs to happen before this becomes law?

Two things: Clearing the Senate and receiving Trump’s signature, both of which are expected to happen.

Senate leadership hopes it can usher through the bill without a roll call vote.

“I’m hoping we can get that done if not this week then next week,” said Senate GOP Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), the lead sponsor of the legislation, who started floating its provisions more than a year ago. “We’ve got a couple of dominoes that need to fall before that happens.”

One wild card remains libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who already voted against an earlier robocall-fighting bill. If he objects, he can block quick passage of the bill in the Senate, but Thune expressed hopes that Paul will “allow this to go” without “making a big deal.” Paul’s office didn’t comment this week.

Either way, Thune said the Senate has the votes to easily clear the bill no matter what Paul does. “It’s going to go, one way or the other,” he said.

Any other detractors out there?

Not many lawmakers or industry groups have gone public to oppose the current measure.

Phone giants like AT&T and Verizon are coalescing around the legislation, saying the battle against illegal robocalls is key to winning back the trust of consumers who increasingly dread answering the phone. The telecom industry’s prime concern was securing protection from liability for blocking calls in error, and the final legislative text includes a safe harbor.

Over the summer, lawmakers contended with a bevy of businesses worried that robocall legislation would make it harder to make legitimate calls to customers — including banks, credit unions and debt collectors, as well as medical practices that make automated reminders to patients about prescriptions and doctor visits. One early adversary, the Credit Union National Association, has praised the latest text for “recognizing the need to provide recourse to those legitimate callers whose calls may be erroneously blocked as a result.”

A handful of libertarian-minded House lawmakers — Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Justin Amash (I-Mich.) and Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) — also voted against earlier versions of the legislation for fear of granting the government too much power. Massie, Amash and Biggs voted no again Wednesday.

Sounds like a lot of negotiation. Does this still have teeth?

Despite the months of wrangling, the TRACED Act still packs a punch, according to consumer advocates tracking the debate. The National Consumer Law Center said this week that the measure “unquestionably moves the ball forward.” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has named battling the nuisance a signature effort and levied record fines against scammers, delivered a speech last month calling the compromise deal a “significant breakthrough” bound to bolster his agency’s powers.

Key supporters in Congress acknowledge that the legislation is unlikely to end the scourge given its scale. But they say the wide mix of remedies should put a serious dent in it.

“The reason it’s getting through is that there are no red robocalls or blue robocalls, just hated robocalls, and that is what brought Democrats and Republicans together,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a sponsor of the Senate effort. “I always felt extremely confident that this was the one thing we could agree on.”

But can’t the government do more?

Yes, consumer advocates say.

Some of them suggest the next battleground will be how the FCC interprets and issues regulations around a 1991 robocall statute known as the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and its definition of what constitutes legal or illegal robocalls. This would replace a set of Obama-era provisions that a federal appeals court struck down last year. Business groups and consumer groups are butting heads on how narrowly to view the law’s protections, which could make a big difference in the calls that can legally be made to consumers.

State and federal officials are also making efforts. In August, for instance, state attorneys general locked down a voluntary pact with telecom giants securing pledges to help root out these calls.

Other legislative ideas, meanwhile, are still circulating on Capitol Hill, such as making it easier for consumers to sue over calls to which they haven’t consented.

Many lawmakers, however, are still overjoyed at landing the deal moving now. “It should have been done long ago,” Tester said.