Budget deal OKs federal robocalls to collect student debt

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A bipartisan budget deal unveiled this week includes a small provision that would allow government debt collectors to robocall mobile phones to help pressure people to pay up. 

The Commerce section of the bill unveiled Monday night would exempt the government and those collecting debt on its behalf from some telephone consumer protection rules, if the calls are made "solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States."

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The provision gives the Federal Communications Commission nine months after the bill is signed to develop rules that would put restrictions on the duration and amount of calls that government collectors can make. 

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn ThuneGingrich, Christie top Trump’s VP list: report Congress must resolve net neutrality once and for all Facebook offers set of 'Values' to reassure users of neutrality MORE (R-S.D.) said the Office of Management and Budget offered up the provision, which has been included in President Obama's budget request for the past few years. He said it's meant to help government collectors recoup student loan debt. 

"I guess this particular issue, I don't have big heartburn over," Thune told reporters Wednesday. "But I think moving forward, this is an issue we are going to have to take a closer look at and determine what those rules are."

The OMB had predicted the provision could bring in about $120 million over 10 years. However, an analysis released by the Congressional Budget Office concluded the revenue would be negligible over the next 10 years. 

"There is a dispute about that. I don't know — and it's not a big amount of money," Thune said. 

Word of the provision has already angered some Democrats, who have pushed the FCC to crack down on robocalls from private businesses. Robocalls and texts to cellphones are restricted with only a handful of exceptions, and the FCC recently voted to strengthen some provisions. 

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillThe Trail 2016: Meet and greet and grief McCaskill: I wonder if people voting for Trump are embarrassed VA opposes bill aimed at helping vets in mustard gas experiments MORE (D-Mo.) called the debt collection provision a "stupid idea."

"I was confused when I looked at the budget deal," she said at a hearing Wednesday. "I don't know how this provision got in there. And if anybody knowns, I would love to find out. I just think it is a really bad idea that we put something in this budget deal that's going to allow the federal government to participate in robocalls to collect debt."

Sens. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyDems: Keep gun research ban out of spending bills Overnight Tech: Groups grade Clinton tech agenda | Facebook activates safety check in Istanbul | Another holdup for location data bill Overnight Cybersecurity: US sees drop in Chinese cyberattacks MORE (D-Mass.) and Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalOvernight Tech: Groups grade Clinton tech agenda | Facebook activates safety check in Istanbul | Another holdup for location data bill Senate faces critical vote on Puerto Rico Reid backs House Puerto Rico bill MORE (D-Conn.) also raised concerns about the provision. 

The provision is not significant enough to cause Democratic critics to completely oppose the 144-page deal, which appears to have enough votes to pass. 

McCaskill said the budget breakthrough is too important to cause her to jettison the compromise, but she called on the FCC to write strict regulations to drastically restrict debt collection calls from the government. 

"I would be perfectly happy to work with your office to make sure the American consumers get a little bit more of that privacy," FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, who appeared at a re-nomination hearing before the Commerce Committee.