WASHINGTON -- If you're being annoyed by telephone sales pitches from total strangers -- or even worse, a computer -- help may be on the way.
The House voted without dissent yesterday to short-circuit those nuisance phone solicitations. The Senate already has acted, and minor differences in the two bills are expected to be resolved quickly.
"The aim is not to eliminate the Brave New World of telemarketing," said Representative Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., "but rather to secure the individual's right to privacy."
According to Representative Markey, some 300,000 companies use the phones to make unsolicited sales pitches to 18 million Americans every day.
Under Mr. Markey's bill, if you don't want to receive calls from the telemarketers, you could ask the Federal Communications Commission -- or its designated agent -- to put you on a "Don't Call" list. Any call after that would be illegal, and the caller would be subject to a fine of up to $1,500.
Because of the technical details, it would take about a year for the FCC to put the system in place.
In addition to barring unwelcome calls from sales agents, the bill would ban automatically dialed calls from computers. And it would vastly curb the use of "fax" machines to send unsolicited advertisements.
The bill exempts charitable organizations and political parties, as well as polling and market research firms.
It also would allow magazines, newspapers, cable TV and credit-card companies to call their current subscribers.
The Senate has approved similar bills, sponsored by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., and Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D. A final House-Senate version is expected to be enacted later this month.
The Bush administration opposes the legislation but took no action to derail it yesterday.
The president's Office of Management and Budget says that the proposal "would result in unnecessary regulation of commercial activities and could curtail technological innovation and eliminate legitimate business operations."
Congressional Republicans, however, generally support the bill, and several of them heartily endorsed it yesterday.
Marge Roukema, R-N.J., whose husband is a physician, said that her husband urged her to support the bill for health and safety reasons.
"He said a private line in his office, set aside for medical emergencies, has been tied up by these telemarketers and automatic dialing operations," she said.