Congress shifts priorities

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Congress' sudden focus on terrorism is rewriting the agenda for action on marketing-related issues this year.

Curbs on direct-to-consumer advertising and new privacy legislation, originally up for consideration, have been almost certainly postponed until next year. Postal Service reform is also unlikely to see major action. That leaves on the slate restrictions on the information marketers can get from schools and, perhaps, discussion of primetime TV content.

"We have been in an active pulse-taking mode since the Sept. 11 tragedy and are hearing that Congress wants mainly to deal with the two issues of terrorism and the economy," said Adonis Hoffman, senior VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "I know that in our meetings we hear that Congress is not paying close attention to some of the issues we care about."

Congressional leaders haven't formally revised the calendar for this year's session. But in the wake of the recent terrorist acts they appear to be leaning toward pushing any issues that could create the appearance of a divided U.S. over until next year's session, said several Congressional aides.

One of the biggest issues to be delayed because of fears of partisan wrangling would be consideration of a prescription drug plan for Medicare. Hopes to reduce the outlay for a drug payment program fueled much of the recent push to restrict direct-to-consumer advertising or require drug companies to limit ads as a condition of eligibility for federal payments.

The drug plan is not going forward now and its likelihood even next year now seems uncertain, lessening prospects for curbs on direct-to-consumer advertising even next year.

As for privacy, U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who had announced plans to move legislation, now intends to present a proposal to members but delay action until next year, said an aide.

U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Florida, who heads the committee's Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection panel, said last week that he is circulating a draft of privacy legislation to some committee members for reaction, but declined to make it available publicly just yet.

"Although the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have altered significantly the focus of Congress, I am continuing to evaluate the need for privacy legislation," he said. "A draft bill has been developed and a summary outline of this legislation has been shared with key House members for their review and input. After that, I will circulate the summary outline among a number of outside business and consumer interest groups for comment before I offer the legislation."

Ad groups and some privacy groups say the terrorist incident could significantly alter the privacy debate next year. They believe concerns about identity thefts and the government's ability to get information to track terrorists will overshadow questions about marketers' actions. "There is now this coming together of security issues and consumer privacy," said Jeff Perlman, exec VP of the American Advertising Federation. "It's going to take a real Solomon to sort all this out. It is going to take a Congress that can focus time and energy on this."

Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a business group that follows Internet issues, said that with pressure to expand the information available to the government may come increased pressure to limit information available to others. "For the government to show itself as privacy-friendly, there may be pressure to do something on the consumer space," he said.

President Bush's push to have his education plan considered will mean an examination of attempts to curb the kind of information schools can provide marketers. Two conflicting amendments were approved by the Senate as part of its education bill.

Ad groups also fear that the need for money to fund new terrorism programs could prompt last-minute tax proposals.

"There is a lot of confusion and the dust has not settled from the political explosion, let alone the actual explosion," said Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers.

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