ATA Plans More Active Role in Legislative Issues

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WASHINGTON -- The American Teleservices Association vowed to take a more active role in a wider range of regulatory issues during its annual legislative conference here this week.


Attendees said the meeting, which was the first under the direction of the group's new, Washington-based management team, was one of the better legislative gatherings the group has had in several years because it provided the opportunity for face-to-face interaction with some key legislative and regulatory leaders.


"I've not seen this powerful a lineup -- ever," said Andrew Miller, vice president of telemarketing at Memberworks, Stamford, CT, and chairman of the legislative affairs committee at the ATA. "I think it's an incredible improvement over past conferences."


About 60 attendees packed a small meeting room on Capitol Hill to hear speakers such as Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-LA, and Matt Salmon, R-AZ.


"We're not just educating them anymore; we're communicating with them, and there's a big difference," said Tim Searcy, president/CEO of Optima Direct, Vienna, VA. "We're finding agreement on some issues, even with those who are usually against us."


Other congressional leaders who addressed the ATA included Rep. Ron Wyden, D-OR; Rep. Bob Weygand, D-RI; Rep. Bart Gordon, D-TN; and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT.


Tauzin is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection, which is part of the House Commerce Committee. H.R. 3180, a bill that would prohibit commercial telemarketing to residences between 5 and 7 p.m., is awaiting a hearing in Tauzin's subcommittee. However, a Tauzin spokesman previously said the bill was not a high priority for the longtime congressman. Salmon introduced the bill last fall in reaction to consumer complaints about receiving telemarketing calls during dinner.


The ATA presented its case this week to both Tauzin and Salmon, arguing that the so-called "dinner hour" is not so easy to define with today's lifestyles. In addition, ATA leaders pointed out, even though some people view such calls as a nuisance, the calls do not need to be restricted by legislation because consumers have other readily available options to reduce the nuisance factor, such as using answering machines to screen incoming calls. Legislation instead should focus on reducing fraud in the industry, association leaders said.


Although little other teleservices legislation is on the federal docket this year, attendees said they appreciated the ability to have face-to-face interaction with federal leaders who could have some influence over their industry. Several attendees also took the opportunity to schedule meetings with their own congressional representatives at the two-day conference.


Stuart Discount, president of Tele-Response Center Inc., Philadelphia, which recently joined the ATA, said he found the conference to be educational.


"I learned that all the legislators seemed to be amenable to opening up a dialogue," he said. "I don't think any of the speakers were so defiant against us that we couldn't have a chance of making them understand our position."


The ATA also met with representatives of the regulatory agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. The representatives discussed their privacy concerns about the use of consumer data in general.


Robin Lanier, operations director at the ATA, said the group would seek to become more involved in a broader array of legislative issues, including those related to privacy. One reason the group selected a management company based in Washington -- after the group's previous board resigned amid controversy last year -- was so it could become more active in government affairs. The previous headquarters for the ATA was in Los Angeles.


Meanwhile, other initiatives of the new management company have begun to bear fruit, including the formation of local chapters. Next week, the first local chapter of the ATA, in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach, VA, area, will hold its first meeting. Other local chapters are expected to follow, including possible chapters in New York, Dallas and California.


Membership in the ATA has been growing since last year's decline, said Jason Clawson, executive director. He said the group has about 1,000 member companies, including 42 that have joined in the last two months.
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