That Time Republicans Wanted More Regulation

When it comes to cell-phone calls on airplanes, some GOP lawmakers say federal restrictions are just fine.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) speaks to members of the media at the Capitol October 11, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. On the 11th day of a U.S. Government shutdown, President Barack Obama spoke with Speaker Boehner on the phone and they agreed that they should keep talking. 
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
Dec. 17, 2013, 2:40 p.m.

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From Big Gulps to green­house-gas emis­sions, the GOP has no in­terest in be­ing aligned with “nanny state” gov­ernance. It is the party of few­er reg­u­la­tions, not more — ex­cept when it comes to phone calls on planes.

Sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­an law­makers are on a cru­sade to avoid hav­ing to hear their seat­mates jab­ber end­lessly, and they think the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment needs to do something about it.

“This case is dif­fer­ent be­cause of com­mon sense,” GOP Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der of Ten­ness­ee said of his pro­pos­al to ban cell-phone calls on planes. “The Re­pub­lic­an Party is also a non­vi­ol­ent party, and if you al­low 2 mil­lion pas­sen­gers every day to yap their in­ner­most thoughts while strapped in 17-inch seats between two oth­er per­sons, you’d have to have 10 new air mar­shals on every air­plane.

“So this is an ef­fort to pro­mote peace and justice, and I’m sure Re­pub­lic­ans are for that as well.”

House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bill Shuster has also in­tro­duced a bill to ban phone calls on planes. The Pennsylvania Re­pub­lic­an has 17 GOP and 11 Demo­crat­ic co­spon­sors, and the bill is sim­il­ar to one in­tro­duced by Al­ex­an­der and Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat. The bills would ban only cell-phone calls by pas­sen­gers, not text mes­saging.

Shuster doesn’t view his pro­pos­al as un­ne­ces­sary gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion. “We are elim­in­at­ing the ban on people be­ing able to text and email, so what I say is, tap, don’t talk,” he said. “This is about so­cial dis­course in our skies today. They’re in con­fined places, crowded “¦ I think it’s un­ne­ces­sary to add this.”

What’s got every­one so wor­ried about this any­way? Well, the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion is con­sid­er­ing lift­ing its ban on cell-phone calls while fly­ing, a rul­ing that would only deal with the tech­no­lo­gic­al ques­tion of wheth­er it’s safe for such calls to be made in the air. The Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment has be­gun a com­ment peri­od as the agency ex­am­ines wheth­er to ban in-flight calls to pro­tect trav­el­ers’ rights and safety. The Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion has already is­sued new guidelines on al­low­ing use of elec­tron­ic devices — though not phone calls — dur­ing takeoffs and land­ings.

House lead­er­ship is “happy to” work with Shuster on the bill, ac­cord­ing to an aide, and Shuster says he may get a floor vote in the New Year on his pro­pos­al. He also says he has pop­u­lar opin­ion be­hind him. In a re­cent As­so­ci­ated Press-GfK poll, 48 per­cent of re­spond­ents said they were totally op­posed to al­low­ing pas­sen­gers to make calls on com­mer­cial flights; 19 per­cent were in fa­vor and 30 per­cent said they neither favored nor op­posed it. (The over­all er­ror mar­gin was plus or minus 3.5 per­cent­age points.)

Liber­tari­an-lean­ing Reas­on com­mis­sioned its own poll, con­duc­ted by Prin­ceton Sur­vey Re­search As­so­ci­ates In­ter­na­tion­al, show­ing 45 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans fa­vor al­low­ing calls dur­ing flights, with 50 per­cent op­posed. (The mar­gin of er­ror was plus or minus 3.7 points.) The site writes that oth­er polls “do not make it clear wheth­er Amer­ic­ans want the gov­ern­ment to ban their fel­low pas­sen­gers from talk­ing on cell phones dur­ing com­mer­cial flights, or if they think that de­cision should be left to the in­di­vidu­al air­lines.”

Law­makers like Shuster cite the specter of pan­de­moni­um break­ing out at 30,000 feet, par­tic­u­larly giv­en that many flight at­tend­ants hate the idea.

“In far too many op­er­a­tion­al scen­ari­os, pas­sen­gers mak­ing phone calls could ex­tend bey­ond a mere nuis­ance, cre­at­ing risks that are far too great,” Veda Shook, pres­id­ent of the As­so­ci­ation of Flight At­tend­ants-CWA, said in a state­ment. “As the last line of de­fense in our na­tion’s avi­ation sys­tem, flight at­tend­ants un­der­stand the im­port­ance of main­tain­ing a calm cab­in en­vir­on­ment, and pas­sen­gers agree.”

But these law­makers also don’t think that the private mar­ket should be the fi­nal ar­bit­er on wheth­er people should be al­lowed to speak on phones. “How do you let the mar­ket de­cide? We didn’t let the mar­ket de­cide if people could smoke on planes,” Shuster said. “It’s very dif­fi­cult to se­greg­ate on planes, like on trains with the quiet car.”

The nuis­ance factor may reign su­preme, as even mem­bers of Con­gress — who travel fre­quently — are con­cerned about their trips back home. Shuster says in­di­vidu­al mem­bers of Con­gress are “a mi­cro­cosm” of the trav­el­ing pub­lic. And they “are com­ing up to me say­ing, ‘Let’s not do this. It’s con­fined. It’s loud.’ “

Al­ex­an­der only has to worry about a one-hour flight home, but his co­spon­sor, Fein­stein, has a five-hour trip back to Cali­for­nia. “She could be trapped in between two people talk­ing about their in­ner­most per­son­al thoughts for five whole hours and she can’t get out of her seat, she can’t get off the air­plane,” Al­ex­an­der said. “So I think that most Amer­ic­ans think this is just plain com­mon sense.”

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