Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Photo: Andrew Harnik / AP

On Tuesday, members of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee unanimously approved several amendments to a popular House anti-robocall bill aimed at putting the screws to those annoying robotic annoyances that have caused millions of Americans to simply stop answering their phones.

So far, there appears to be little opposition to the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, a bipartisan bill put forth last week by Congressmen Frank Pallone, Jr. and Greg Walden, chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill’s central purpose is requiring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to prescribe new regulations to govern the use of robocalls, namely by forcing the callers to obtain the consent of those they wish to hound.

Bipartisan amendments adopted by the members during a half-hour hearing on Tuesday vastly enhanced the bill, adding, for example, a requirement for FCC to publish a report on phone carriers’ participation in efforts to trace the origins of suspected unlawful calls.

One amendment, offered by Congressmen A. Donald McEachin and Pete Olsen will require the FCC to submit evidence of certain violations to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. It also requires the FCC to make information about those referrals available to the public. The amendment was originally introduced as a standalone bill called the Locking Up Robocallers Act of 2019.

Another requires the FCC to create a process by which phone carriers’ efforts to identify and catch robocallers receive certification. The purpose is to enable the FCC some supervision over the efforts of private companies engaged in tracing the origins of unlawful robocalls, as well as to identify phone companies not actively doing so. Those not aiding in the effort to catch robocallers would be publicly identified.

Other amendments seek to crack down on so-called “one-ring” scams—whereby victims are tricked into calling back intentional numbers that result in significant charges—and create an interagency working group between the FCC and Attorney General’s office to study enforcement of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), the principal U.S. law restricting the activities of telemarketers and other telephone solicitations.

The Stopping Bad Robocalls Act amends portions of the Communications Act, from which the FCC’s enforcement powers are derived. At present, the law includes several exemptions: emergency services, obviously, but also calls that have no commercial purpose. Because of this, debt collectors who make use of automatic telephone dialing systems and other robocall technology are currently unaffected by the new bill. That could change soon, however.

Representative Anna Eshoo, Democrat of California, briefly introduced an amendment designed to ensure the new robocall restrictions would impact businesses seeking to collect on federal loans, including student loans. The amendment had no Republican supporters, however.

Eshoo opted to withdraw the amendment rather than force it to a vote after obtained promises from Republicans Greg Walden and Bob Latta to collaborate on a bipartisan solution. Eshoo’s debt-collector amendment will likely be re-introduced when the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act goes for markup before the full Energy and Commerce Committee next week.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 exempted from certain TCPA restrictions calls “made solely to collect a debt owed to, or guaranteed by, the United States.” 

“My amendment simply reascends that loophole,” Eshoo said.

“I can share with you a whole raft of anecdotes,” Eshoo added. “I don’t think anyone’s gonna raise their hand and say, ‘Anna, please read them all out,’ but they are real stories of what’s happened to people. It’s across the country. It’s deep, it’s broad, and it contributes mightily to this gigantic number of robocalls that are made.”

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