WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives voted yesterday to give consumers a choice in the monopoly-dominated local telephone and cable television markets as it passed legislation to rewrite the nation's basic telecommunications law for the first time in 60 years.
Two related bills sailed through the normally contentious House with thumping bipartisan majorities.
The bill known as Brooks-Dingell, which would break down barriers between the local and long-distance telephone industries, carried by a 423-5 vote. The other legislation -- known as Markey-Fields -- which would give congressional blessing to the convergence of the telephone and cable TV industries, sailed through 423-4. None of the dissenters was from Maryland.
The bills, which were combined into one after passage, would greatly expand the options available to consumers.
"You will be able to call your telephone company and ask it to provide HBO and ESPN. . .," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who led the telecommunications reform effort. "You will be able to call your local cable company and ask them to provide local telephone service."
Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat who helped write the legislation, predicted the bills will bring other important benefits.
"Prices will be favorably affected as competition comes into markets that are monopolistic today," he said. "We will be proving the business reasons for companies to modernize their networks and build what has come to be known as the information superhighway."
At times yesterday's debate resembled a political love-in, as Democrats and Republicans who usually exchange brickbats threw bouquets across the center aisle.
"This is one of the great days for the legislative process," said Rep. Newt Gingrich, the minority whip from Georgia. "The naysayers across this fine city are in profound disbelief," said Rep. Jack Brooks, the Texas Democrat who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The strong bipartisan majorities give the bill momentum as it goes to the Senate, where the Commerce Committee is expected to produce its own version next month.
Passage might not come as easily there as in the House. The regional Bell companies strongly oppose a version sponsored by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, chairman of the Commerce Committee, largely because it would erect a higher barrier to their entry into the long-distance market.
In a briefing yesterday morning, the head of their trade association praised the House legislation but warned that the Bells would fight to scuttle any Senate bill resembling the proposal by the South Carolina Democrat rather than take their chances in a conference committee.
"If there were a chance that the Senate committee bill could be sent to the president, we would rather have it die and wait till the next Congress," said Roy Neel, president of the United States Telephone Association.
Pressure has been building for an update of the 1934 Communications Act ever since the breakup of the Bell system a decade ago, but not until this year has a clear consensus on the major issues emerged.
The legislation marks a reassertion of congressional authority over the telephone industry, which has operated since 1982 under rules handed down by U.S. District Judge Harold J. Greene. As the man who presided over the breakup of the Bell System, Judge Greene has essentially been the final word on what telephone companies can and cannot do ever since.
The Brooks-Dingell bill would gradually lift the central provisions of Judge Greene's "modified final judgment," which prevents the seven regional Bells from getting into the long-distance or phone equipment manufacturing industries.
The Markey-Fields bill would repeal the provisions of the 1984 Cable Act that prevent telephone companies from offering video services. At the same time, the bill would brush aside state laws that enshrine the incumbent regional telephone companies as "natural" monopolies -- opening the door for cable, long-distance and other telecommunications companies to compete in the local exchange.
If the House and Senate can agree on a final version of the package, President Clinton is expected to sign it this fall.