WASHINGTON — Politicians have finally found an issue they all can agree on: Telemarketers calling at dinnertime are a scourge that must be repulsed.
Congress yesterday sent to President Bush two bills that would make permanent a program to protect consumers from unwanted phone calls from telemarketers. Its hallmark is the national "do not call" list.
"This initiative has proven to be one of the most popular laws in history," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. Extending the program was necessary "to avoid the wrath of millions of angry constituents."
The Do Not Call Registry, initiated in 2003, has been widely acclaimed for allowing Americans to eat their suppers in peace. Some 150 million people have listed their phones on the registry, which prohibits calls from telemarketers.
"I remember times we just used to take our phones off the hook," said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., a leader on the issue, recalling pre-registry days.
"Consumers without exception hate the annoyance of intrusive telemarketer calls at dinnertime," said Chris Murray, senior counsel for Consumers Union. "When nearly every American household has taken the time to register, that says something really strong."
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, put it in political terms: "With a 10 percent approval rating it is incumbent upon us to continue to pass legislation that is indeed popular."
The House passed by voice vote and sent to the president a bill to make permanent the authority of the Federal Trade Commission to collect fees to run the program. "My legislation keeps the program free, simple and effective for consumers," said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., sponsor of S. 781.
Telemarketers pay annual fees of up to $17,050 and must search the registry every month and drop from call lists the phone numbers of consumers who have registered.
The Congressional Budget Office said the fees will bring in $107 million over the next five years. Consumers can remove their numbers from the list at any time.
The Senate later approved by a voice vote and sent to the White House a bill, H.R. 3541, promoted by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to make the list permanent, overturning an FTC rule that people re-register their phone numbers every five years. The FTC reasoned that re-registering would update the list to account for people who move and switch their phone numbers. Critics argued that the list is already scrubbed each month of numbers that have been disconnected and reassigned to new customers.
David Certner, legislative policy director at AARP, said that some 50 million phone numbers could be dropped off the list in September without a change in a rule that most Americans are unaware of. The FTC has given assurances it will wait for congressional action before eliminating any numbers.
AARP has been active on the issue from the beginning, Certner said, both because seniors are more susceptible to telemarketer fraud and may not have the mobility to answer repeated calls. "For some seniors these calls are more than just a minor inconvenience."
Violating the Do Not Call Registry subjects telemarketers to civil penalties up to $11,000 per violation. Last November the FTC announced nearly $7.7 million in settlements with six companies accused of calling people on the list.
In all, said Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., sponsor of the House's fee-extension bill, the FTC has collected $25 million in civil penalties and relief for consumers.
Organizations engaged in charitable, political and survey work are exempt from the restrictions. Also, companies that have an established business relationship with a customer may call for up to 18 months after the last purchase, payment or delivery.