House Schedule Excludes Barton Bill

The House floor schedule this week excludes a telecommunications bill that would overhaul cable-franchising rules to allow new providers to initiate service within 30 days under a national authorization scheme.

Key sponsors of the bill were hoping that the House would debate the bill Wednesday or Thursday, but the floor schedule released by Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) listed 11 bills, not including H.R. 5252, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE Act), sponsored by Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas).

The House schedule could change if House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) refuses to refer the COPE Act to the Judiciary Committee, deciding a power struggle in Barton’s favor over Judiciary chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).

Last Monday, Sensenbrenner asked for authority to review the Barton bill, explaining in a 24-page letter to Hastert that Judiciary had jurisdiction over the bill and deserved a sequential referral.

Barton and Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) rejected numerous amendments they otherwise considered meritorious because they feared that the additions would trigger a referral to Judiciary and take their telecommunications bill off the fast track.

But Sensenbrenner’s letter, in painstaking detail, asserted that several provisions of the bill clearly fell within Judiciary jurisdiction, including one related to the ability of cable-phone and other broadband-access providers to demand fees from Internet-based content providers to guarantee top-quality connections with consumers.

“The market power of broadband providers can be utilized to unlawfully restrain trade, undermine the competitive process and limit the ability of consumers to access online content, goods, or services of their choice in a nondiscriminatory manner, and this conduct has already occurred,” Sensenbrenner wrote.

The Barton bill would allow a new cable entrant to seek a 10-year national franchise from the Federal Communications Commission, cutting local governments out of the process. Local governments would be allowed to collect up to 5% of a new entrant's gross revenue as a franchise fee.

On network neutrality, the bill would bar the FCC from drafting rules and regulations. However, the agency would be permitted to force broadband-access providers to comply with network-neutrality principles the FCC enunciated last August. The commission is allowed to impose a $500,000 fine for each violation.