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Time on Capitol Hill

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A CHANCE TO BE HEARD Consumed by debates over health-care reform and the crime bill, legislators have left four other major issues to languish. With votes on these expected before the 103rd Congress adjourns this fall, there is still time to influence the outcome. Time invites you to use the attached postcard to express your views.

GATT: Last December 117 nations agreed on a plan to revise the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The changes in the global pact would reduce tariffs on manufactured goods, cut agricultural subsidies, tighten the protection of intellectual-property rights and create a new mechanism to mediate future trade disputes. Congress is considering whether to approve U.S. participation in the agreement. Opponents ranging from Pat Buchanan to Ralph Nader warn that the new treaty would require the U.S. to defer to a supranational body on such matters as automobile-emission levels, product warning labels and safety standards. Supporters say the revised treaty could help America’s economy grow an additional $200 billion annually, or about 3% a year, over the next decade. The Clinton Administration hopes to persuade Congress to approve the agreement this fall without any amendment, under the so-called fast-track procedure, calling for a single up-or-down vote.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS: In an effort to keep up with rapidly changing technology, both houses have been working to update the laws and regulations that govern the telephone and television industries, with the goals of encouraging competition and accelerating construction of the information superhighway. In June, by comfortable margins, the House passed two bills (now combined into one, designated HR3626) intended to increase competition among cable-TV and phone companies. The bill would permit regional phone companies, the so-called Baby Bells, to get into the long-distance phone business from which they are now barred in exchange for granting their competitors, including cable-TV companies, access to their transmission and switching systems. The bill would also allow cable-TV companies and long-distance carriers to provide local phone service. In the Senate on Aug. 11, the Commerce Committee sent to the floor S1822, a bill that would permit the same process but stipulates that the Baby Bells cannot enter long-distance markets until the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission confirm that they have opened their lines to competitors. That could take several years. The House version lets them in after one year, regardless of competition. The House version is expected to go to the Senate floor in September.

INTERSTATE BANKING: In late July, House and Senate conferees reached agreement on HR3841, the interstate banking bill, which would allow bank holding companies to establish separately managed and capitalized banks and branches in more than one state. Its sponsors claim that the legislation will make banking more convenient for customers and foster a leaner, stabler and more profitable banking system. A Senate vote was delayed Aug. 9, when Texas Republican Phil Gramm lodged a point of order involving his state’s banking laws. Final action is expected sometime after Labor Day.

LOBBYING AND GIFTS: For more a year, legislators have been struggling with the delicate issue of how much they should disclose about their contacts with lobbyists as well as the gifts and favors proffered by them. Based on votes taken in May 1993, the Senate is prepared to ban all gifts except those from friends and relatives. The House, however, has so far shown a willingness to permit certain gifts and favors from lobbyists, such as subsidized conferences and trips on behalf of charitable causes. Under discussion is a compromise that would bar acceptance of any “gifts of value,” a term as yet undefined, from lobbyists, as well as recreational trips paid for by interest groups. Such a compromise would still allow each body to set its own rules governing gifts from nonlobbyists. How such rules would be enforced remains another open issue.

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