The contract with America is clearly expanding the power of the federal government, and if you don’t believe it, take a look at yet another piece of legislation that will supersede local statutes and ordinances across the 50 states. It’s called the Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995, and it’s part of the GOP plan to eliminate barriers to entry into the burgeoning industry in cellular phones and other electronic gadgetry that are paving the information superhighway. The problem is, the bill is the equivalent of a legislative blunderbuss that will blow to smithereens niggling obstacles such as zoning laws. Consider the main clauses: “No state or local statute, regulation or other legal requirement shall effectively prohibit any carrier or other person from entering” the telecommunications business. Moreover, counties mav not pass an ordinance that would “effectively prohibit any person or carrier from providing any interstate or intrastate telecommunications or information service.” Lastly, a state or locality is barred from charging fees that would increase the cost of providing service. The Federal Communications Commission will wield this mailed fist of the federal black knight.
The legal consequences of the bill’s language will soon become clear to small towns near big cities everywhere, as the use of cellular telephones increases. Indeed, a summertime fight in McLean, Virginia, about 12 miles away from Washington, D.C., illustrated the scope of the bill and its impact even before it passed. As reported in the McLean Providence Journal, the furious residents of McLean were trying to stop the construction of a “monopole,” which is Tofflerese for cellular telephone pole. Cellphones require antennae attached to anything high enough to make the antennae accessible to the signals, and McLeanites readily approved a telecommunications company’s request to attach its antennae to buildings of the right height, or as in one case, to one of the lights at the high school football stadium. In those eases, no one objected because they do no violence to the landscape. However, what no one realized was that cell phones require antennae about every two miles, which limits the preexisting sites suitable for an antenna. Eventually, a monopole had to be built, and the telecommunications company decided to plant one of its Information Age totems at a prominent intersection, where it would be visible to those who do not want to worship it. That, naturally enough, ruffled the feathers of McLean’s feisty residents, who take the appearance of their small burg very seriously. One-hundred-fifty feet might not seem very tall until you give that height a perspective that most folks can understand: 150 feet is 15 stories.
No wonder McLeanites were so upset. McLean has never been home to Randian skyscrapers and other shrines to capitalism, and residents there want to keep it that way. Indeed, more than one developer has left McLean, which ironically enough is second home to many of the senators and congressmen who voted for the legislation, bruised and bloodied. But not this time, as residents learned at a few meetings where they got the latest news on their monopole. The telecommunications industry had a little legislative something up its sleeve: the Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995.
The bill’s language is very clear. Telecommunication rules. It isn’t hard to imagine a crafty lawyer’s arguments: a zoning law has “barred” a firm from exercising its right to enter the industry because it cannot build a monopole at a particular location; a state or county is charging a fee, which is a “barrier to entry” into the telecommunications business, because it requires the firm to make a “proffer,” a frequently used device that might require, for instance, a developer to maintain roads to his complex in return for a zoning concession. As for constitutionality, you can expect the industry to rely on the commerce clause of the Constitution. Because cell-phone calls cross state lines, they are no doubt considered “interstate commerce,” which Congress, not the states, may regulate.
The particulars of this bill, which awaits final passage, aren’t as important as the two truths that have been revalidated and the principle under attack. First, don’t expect politicians, whatever party they represent, to relinquish power once they have tasted it. Second, never trust a politician who says he speaks for the people. It’s more likely he is a dictator than a democrat.
The principle, once again brazenly repudiated by Mr. Gingrich and his pals, is the one they used, with the decisive help of radio talk-show hosts, to get elected. It is the Contract’s central theme: the federal citadel from which the bureaucrat crusaders gallop on their regulatory steeds must be dismantled brick by brick. Laws like this one pull up the visor on the Republican Galahads and expose the most heralded political document of the last 30 years for what it isn’t. The Contract is no Magna Carta, Capitol Hill no Runnymeade.
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