Capitol: Lawmakers spend four days debating “robocalls”

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January 20th, 2012

Update:

Debate finally concluded on this bill Monday, Jan. 23, with no action. After eight hours of debate stretching over five days, Omaha Sen. John Nelson moved to end debate and vote. That motion requires two-thirds of the Legislature, or 33 votes, to succeed. Nelson got only 26 votes, with 17 senators opposed. That makes it virtually certain the bill will not come up again this year.

Lincoln, NE – Senators spent their fourth day this week debating an easing of regulations on political “robocalls,” arguing whether that would unleash a string of dirty tricks, or not do much at all.

Robocalls are recorded, automatically dialed calls about candidates or issues that many people find about as welcome as nails on a chalkboard. But they’re also free speech, protected by the First Amendment. The state can’t regulate what they say, but it can regulate things like the hours they can be made.

Sen. Heath Mello wants to maintain regulations on automated calls from political campaigns. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

What senators are debating is a bill to simplify the regulations. Right now, the Public Service Commission requires callers to register their automatic dialing devices and provide a script of the calls, while the Accountability and Disclosure Commission requires callers to identify who’s paying, and specifies the calls can’t come after 9 p.m. or before 8 a.m.

Omaha Sen. John Nelson wants to do away with the Public Service Commission’s role, saying its burdensome to require political groups to deal with two agencies. Opponents like Omaha Sen. Heath Mello say only the PSC has the clout to police companies that make such phone calls. Mello says turning responsibility over to the Accountability and Disclosure Commission would open a loophole for groups that claim they are merely educating voters, not advocating. Nelson said that loophole already exists.

That provoked this exchange between Mello and Nelson: “Anyone who uses an automated dialer, Sen. Nelson, whether it’s for education purposes, non-advocacy or political, all have to follow the same process,” Mello said.

“The problem is, Sen. Mello, they don’t follow it. They don’t register,” Nelson countered.

Under the accountability commission statutes, even if a group making calls didn’t ignore the law, it wouldn’t have to report if it spends less than $5,000. But Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher suggested that with technology allowing someone in China to use the Internet to make automated phone calls, regulation is futile. Schumacher had this exchange with Nelson:

“As a practical matter, are we doing anything with any of these laws? So far as I know, we are not. So why have we spent four days on this?” Schumacher said.

Despite that, senators ran out the clock without reaching a first round vote on the bill. When they resume Monday, they will quickly reach the unofficial 8 hours of cumulative debate time after which there can be a motion to cut off debate and vote. But it’s not clear whether there is the 2/3 majority needed for such a move to succeed.

One Response

  1. Shaun Dakin says:

    Robocalls are political spam and voters should be given the right to opt out of them.

    I created the National Political Do Not Contact Registry to do just that.

    The bottom line? Politicians don’t care a wit about voter privacy rights, only their first amendment rights.

    Here is my letter to the editor today in the Washington Post

    http://www.stoppoliticalcalls.org/ht/display/ArticleDetails/i/319847/pid/700

    Shaun Dakin

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