- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 20, 2006

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicates a scant 25 percent of all Americans approve of the way Congress is doing its job, while 60 percent disapprove. Why? Americans expect Congress to do its job, and they know what that job is: To pass laws that secure the blessings of liberty. By this simple measure, this Congress is not doing well and voters know it.

Instead of going to voters in November with a list of legislative accomplishments, Republicans are set to return home with little more than a litany of excuses and missed opportunities. Excuses are not very persuasive to voters. Although it is not a headline issue like fundamental tax reform, Congress does have one piece of pro-consumer legislation that could be delivered before the election: “cable choice.”

Today, most Americans have few options among cable television providers. The reason: Competition is limited by an outdated system where potential competitors must navigate a maze of local “franchise” rules to offer rival cable service. There are tens of thousands of these franchise jurisdictions across the nation. The result: Barriers to entry limited competition, reduced innovation and poor service.

Congress can change this lousy situation. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would allow local telephone companies to compete head-on with cable TV operators to provide cable television.

Pro-competitive policy is also good politics. It is hard to find a consumer opposed to more choice and competition in cable TV.

Allowing new competitors like phone companies to enter the video market will strengthen their incentives to build out broadband infrastructures. In the information technology marketplace, American businesses and workers are in the fight of their lives and are behind countries like Japan and Canada in broadband deployment. How U.S. enterprises fare will depend in no small measure on how well they use advanced computer and communications technologies to boost productivity by lowering production costs or improving products and service.

As an economics professor, I would tell my students that firms tend to invest the most, upgrade and innovate the fastest, and cut costs and prices the deepest when they feel competition at their back. Phone companies and cable TV operators are no exception, and injecting more competition into the market for broadband would have widespread positive effects on American competitiveness.

You would think Republican majorities would jump at the chance to pass legislation that is simple, real, popular and economically sound. Yet they are likely to go home empty-handed.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton did a fine job moving cable choice legislation along earlier in the year. Likewise, in the Senate, Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens was also able to move a bill through committee. Unfortunately, the progress stops here as the full Senate is stalling on the cable choice bill over the issue of “Net Neutrality,” an idea backed primarily by left-wing interest groups and rent-seeking companies like Google and Yahoo. Net Neutrality would impose new regulations on the Internet, giving these companies free access to the infrastructure owned by others.

It is easy to understand why Net Neutrality has picked up support from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Hillary Clinton and MoveOn.Org. After all, it’s more government regulation in an attempt to make things “fair,” and this is what liberals want. They don’t trust the market. It is a little harder, though, to figure out why free-market Republicans are allowing themselves to be held hostage by the minority. Rather than do nothing and follow the trend that has defined this Congress, and in particular the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist would do better to take bold action and engage in some political brinkmanship on an issue that has gained critical mass and could deliver an important win before November.

Unfortunately, the saga of cable choice is representative of what has gone wrong with the 109th Congress. Ideas that are popular with voters, and that the overwhelming majority of Republican members also think are good policy, are held up by a handful of obstructionists willing to put their own views and their own political interests ahead of those of their party — and the voters.

I suspect on Election Day voters will exercise their authority the only way they can. To avoid their wrath, Republicans in Congress must heed a simple call: Do something.

Dick Armey, House Majority Leader from 1995 to 2003, is chairman of FreedomWorks, a national advocacy organization.

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