Rising text messaging fees bother Kohl

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Washington - Sen. Herb Kohl is asking the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department to examine the state of competition in the cell phone industry, pointing to the rising costs of text messaging by major phone companies.

Kohl, who leads a Senate antitrust subcommittee, noted that the price charged by the four biggest providers for some text messages doubled to 20 cents each in the past two years.

The Wisconsin Democrat also pointed out the prices charged by the companies appeared to have risen in lock step.

"These sharp increases raise concerns," Kohl said during a hearing Tuesday on the issue. "Are these price increases the result of a lack of competition in a highly concentrated market?"

Four companies - Verizon, AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA - now control about 90% of the cell phone market.

Industry officials at the hearing said most text messages are covered by cell phone plans and that the rates Kohl is citing are for texts not included in the plans.

In 2008, more than 1 trillion text messages were sent in the United States.

Wiretapping: Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold grilled a key member of the Obama administration at a Senate hearing last week, pressing Attorney General Eric Holder on the issue of government surveillance. A vocal critic of the Bush administration over the National Security Agency's wiretapping program, Feingold complained about Holder's testimony on the issue afterward.

"I was disappointed by Attorney General Holder's unwillingness to repeat what both he and President (Barack) Obama had stated in the past - that President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program was illegal. For an administration that has repeatedly stated its intention to restore the rule of law, this episode was a step backward," Feingold said in a statement.

During the Judiciary Committee hearing, Feingold noted Holder's past criticism of the wiretapping program and pressed him - "now that you are the attorney general" - to characterize it as "illegal."

Holder said the program was "certainly unwise" because it lacked congressional approval but said that has been "remedied by the fact that Congress has now authorized the program." He declined to use the term "illegal."

Feingold called such comments "awfully mild" and urged the administration to more explicitly renounce what Feingold called "unsupportable claims of executive power" made under George W. Bush.

War money: Feingold was one of only five senators who voted no Thursday on a $106 billion supplemental funding bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure, which passed 91-5, goes to President Barack Obama's desk for his signature. Kohl voted for the legislation.

Feingold has said he opposed the bill partly over concerns that Obama plans to leave up to 50,000 American troops in Iraq.

"We must not lose sight of the fact that our very presence has a destabilizing impact and the vast majority of Iraqis support a prompt withdrawal of U.S. troops," he said, adding that he worries Obama's strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan does not adequately address the problems in the region and could exacerbate them.

Hmong refugees: Wisconsin members of Congress are urging Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to pressure Thailand to stop the forced repatriation of Hmong refugees there back to Laos, where they fear persecution.

"The U.S. has been a champion of the Hmong since the Vietnam War, when many Hmong fought alongside U.S. soldiers and were a critical part of the war effort," the lawmakers stated in the letter, which was signed by 31 members of Congress, including five from Wisconsin. "We continue to have a vital national security interest in and moral obligation to assist our former allies, especially those with bona fide persecution claims."

Wisconsin has one of the nation's largest Hmong populations. The Wisconsin members who signed the letter were: Reps. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse), Steve Kagen (D-Appleton), Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee), Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison) and Tom Petri (R-Fond du Lac).

Domestic violence: The House on Wednesday approved 425-4 an amendment authored by Moore to increase the funding for legal assistance to domestic violence victims.

The measure would add $4 million to a legal assistance program that helps victims of domestic violence obtain restraining orders, win custody of their children and navigate the criminal justice system.

"Nearly 70% of women who bravely take their abusers to court do so without legal represent- ation," Moore said in a speech on the House floor. "Too often, having an attorney present is the deciding factor in obtaining that life-saving personal protection order, getting custody of your kids or receiving transitional housing."

Polls: Roughly half of Wisconsin voters approve of the job that their two senators are doing in Washington, according to a new poll by Public Policy Polling. About 53% of Wisconsin voters approve of Feingold, who is up for re-election in 2010; about 36% disapprove. Kohl, who is not up for re-election until 2012, has a 50% approval rating; 36% disapprove.

On TV: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) plans to appear on "Fox News Sunday" with host Chris Wallace to talk about health care reform.

Ryan, who has been critical of the Democrats' ideas for changing the country's health care system, is expected to discuss his proposals for reform.

Ryan is pushing for legislation that would tax employer-based health care in exchange for tax credits that would go directly to employees.

He also would set up state health insurance exchanges where people could shop for private insurance. The show can be seen at 8 a.m. Sunday on WITI (Channel 6) in Milwaukee.

Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.


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