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Future of Tele-Town Halls Unclear to Lawmakers

The Federal Communications Commission was in damage control mode on Wednesday, trying to ratchet back comments made by the agency’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, in testimony to a House Energy and Commerce panel earlier this week.

Wheeler told mystified members of the subcommittee on communications and technology that his agency had effectively banned tele-town halls in clarifying its interpretation of rules last month stemming from a 1991 law (PL 102-243) dealing with telephone consumer protection. The tele-town halls are a common method that members of Congress use to communicate with their constituents.

The agency document said members of Congress, or most anyone, may not call cellphones using autodialers, without prior permission from the recipient of the call.

Wheeler was unapologetic at the hearing.

“If I have a tele-town hall in my office, which I do, and there’s some company that calls all those thousands of people in my district, are they now prohibited from doing this?” asked Republican Greg Walden of Oregon, the subcommittee chairman.

“Unless the consumer has asked to get this,” responded Wheeler. “The statute is very explicit.”

Walden followed up: “Those are prohibited and your contention is always have been?”

Wheeler replied: “Yes, sir.”

After the hearing, the FCC promised alarmed members a fact sheet explaining the rules and sought to clarify that they could continue to call landlines to organize their tele-town halls without first seeking constituents’ permission.

An agency spokesman said that the rule clarification would likely not affect lawmakers at all because the cellphone ban had always been in place. “As long as vendors for tele-town halls continue to adhere to the decades-old rules, use of these services should pose no issue, said the spokesman, Will Wiquist.

David Grossman, the legislative director for one of the alarmed committee members, Democrat Anna G. Eshoo of California, sent an email Tuesday evening to congressional chiefs of staff and legislative directors passing on the agency’s clarification and its promise of a fact sheet.

But it’s not clear that lawmakers can continue as before. Some create their own calling lists to organize the town halls. Others rely on outside firms. One proprietor of a firm that sets up the calls, Marty Stone of Stones’ Phones, said reputable firms “subscribe to a list, that comes out once a week, with all the cellphone numbers including new ones on it,” he said. “We scrub against that list to remove cellphones.”

That process, though, seems like enough to give lawmakers’ pause. As FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said at the hearing, plaintiffs’ attorneys are targeting violators of the 1991 law, including reputable businesses that have made honest mistakes. A failure to scrub phone lists could expose lawmakers to lawsuits.

At the same time, the inability to reach out to constituents who only use cellphones cuts the reach of tele-town halls by as much as half. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2013 that 41 percent of American households did not have landlines, or 128 million people. The report said that Americans were dropping their landlines at a rate of 3 to 5 percent a year.

At the hearing, Wheeler did nothing to dissuade lawmakers’ alarm, prompting Walden, as well as Eshoo and her fellow Democrat Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico to say they needed to take another look at the 1991 law because their constituents appreciate the ability to participate in the tele-town halls.

“I don’t think they’d be satisfied with: ‘Well, this is what the statute says,'” said Eshoo. “I think they’d say, ‘Change whatever you have to change.’ “

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