Campaign 'robocalls' catch Congress's ear

A bipartisan bill, introduced Tuesday, would keep Americans from being flooded with automated political phone calls.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As each Election Day approaches, the phone calls proliferate with annoying frequency.

"Hello, my name is ... and I'd like to share a few ideas with you about my candidacy." The calls, usually prerecorded and automatically dialed from a phone bank, ramble on about candidate stances, opponent shortfalls, and the need to "get out and vote."

But so many abuses have been reported nationwide, especially during this primary season, that the political tele-tactic known as "robocalls" is in the cross hairs of national legislators. A bill introduced Tuesday by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, and Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania would curtail the practice.

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"Something must be done about the worst of these calls," says Senator Feinstein. "During this primary season, we have heard stories about people being called over and over and over again at all hours of the night." Not a ban but rather a "reasonable framework" to limit robocalls, the new guidelines must be "sensible," says Feinstein.

Known as the Robocall Privacy Act of 2008, the bill would establish that anyone who makes or sets up one-sided, computer-generated calls without following certain rules would be subject to fines of up to $1,000 per violation, and up to $3,000 if such violations are deemed "willful."

New rules would ban calls after 9 p.m. and before 8 a.m. and prohibit more than two calls to the same telephone number each day. They would also prohibit the masking of the robocaller's phone number or identity on caller-ID tools. All such calls would need to disclose that the call is recorded and who is behind it.

The law would apply only to robocalls related to candidates running for federal office and would include those placed by supporters and opponents alike. The Federal Election Commission would be empowered to fine violators, and individuals could sue to stop the calls.

Commercial calls are already limited by the Federal Trade Commission's "do not call list," subscribed to by millions. But political calls have been specifically exempted from that list.

In written testimony prepared for Tuesday hearings, Barbara O'Connor, a communications professor at California State University, Sacramento, said she has seen reports of 14 calls from the Romney and McCain camps to one California home ahead of the Feb. 5 primary.

"Californians are confused and angry about the excessive use of this tactic right before elections," says Dr. O'Connor. "They simply don't understand why they must be subjected to this practice. National polling data documents their disdain for politicians during the election season. These robocalls do nothing to dispel that [view]."

First Amendment protections of political speech prevent a complete ban on such calls, say constitutional specialists. But O'Connor says an existing California measure governing such practices – which forces a caller at least to give a name and phone number so that recipients can file complaints – is a reasonable compromise.

Five states already have such laws, with California's being the most restrictive. But most currently lack enforcement, and phone customers have little knowledge of how to track and report such calls.

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