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By Kyle Daly
May 18 — The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is eyeing a dual-track strategy for moving legislation that would update the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) suggested during a May 18 panel hearing on the law that the committee consider acting on different bills that would focus on alleged litigation abuses and consumer harms, respectively.
“If we could figure out how to divide this discussion into those two categories, we're much more likely to find a solution to both problems,” Blunt said.
Committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said the suggestion of splitting TCPA update efforts into two separate initiatives is “one we might want to take a look at if everybody agrees that would make sense.”
Despite the potential strategy, it's unclear whether or how soon the committee will act on such legislation this year to amend the law, which limits the use of automated phone calls, or robocalls, to consumers.
Lawmakers have already introduced two bills focusing on consumer protection issues in recent months. The committee has yet to act on either the Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone Calls Act of 2015, or HANGUP Act (S. 2235), which would roll back an exemption from TCPA limitations for federal government debt collection included as an amendment to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, or the Spoofing Prevention Act of 2016 (S. 2558), which would expand a ban on falsifying caller ID information to include text messages and calls from outside the U.S.
Senators and witnesses testifying at the hearing said the 25-year-old TCPA is showing its age. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) illustrated the changes the telecom world has seen since the law was passed by bringing to the hearing a brick-sized cell phone from 1992. Thune said consumer behaviors and expectations "would be unrecognizable to Congress 25 years ago."
Several witnesses and lawmakers suggested the law is being abused by attorneys launching class actions against legitimate companies mistakenly making robocalls to wrong numbers. Daines said there's a running joke that TCPA stands for "total cash for plaintiffs' attorneys."
Becca Wahlquist, testifying on behalf of the U.S. Chamber Institute of Legal Reform, called on the committee to advance legislation addressing the "huge amount of litigation" brought under TCPA. Wahlquist said such litigation has resulted in millions of dollars in attorneys' fees, minimal compensation for class action members and considerable costs for legitimate businesses that have erroneously called or texted numbers that have been reassigned to people other than those they're trying to reach.
Other hearing participants focused on consumer harms related to robocalls.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said if lawmakers overlook the “anger” about such calls, they would be “doing a great disservice to the people of America.”
Blumenthal, several other committee members and witnesses said phone carriers, lawmakers and regulators should all be doing more to protect consumers from harassment by robocallers, especially scam artists using robocalls to pull off their schemes.
Committee Republicans tended to focus more on abuse of the law in their comments and lines of questioning. Democrats, on the other hand, seemed more worried about consumer protection questions. Yet members of both parties appeared sympathetic to both concerns, prompting Blunt's suggestion.
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