Born in Humboldt, South Dakota, Pressler is a graduate of the University of South Dakota, Oxford University (as a Rhodes Scholar), the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and Harvard Law School. He became a lawyer, and then served in the Vietnam War in the United States Army from 1966 until 1968. After serving for several years in the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer he was elected to the House of Representatives from 1975 to 1979. He was a Senator from South Dakota from 1979 to 1997, and was chairman of the Commerce Committee from 1995 to 1997.
In his first year as chairman of the Commerce Commitee, Pressler authored and won overwhelming congressional and presidential approval of a sweeping reform of telecommunications legislations--the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Given the hostility of the powerful stakeholders in the communications and media industries, this law would probably not have happened but for Senator Pressler's long-time efforts, supported also by Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, the ranking Democratic Senator. Pressler negotiated the compromises that gained the support of diverse industry groups in telecom, broadcasting, and cable TV, as well as of the Bill Clinton White House, state utility commissions, and public morality advocates. Only 5 Senators (including Sen. John McCain) and 20 Representatives voted against the law. The impact of the Act was felt immediately. Investments in start-up companies in a wide range of communications services increased dramatically. Incumbent firms also accelerated their upgrades. Major firms sought new alliances, and consolidated into often larger entities. Prices for a variety of communications services declined. A boom period followed, with share prices of telecom and related firms skyrocketing. But in time, the optimistic profit scenarios had to be revised, and the result was a major industry retrenchment.
The Act’s lowering of restrictions on media mergers helped to raise media concentration, in particular in the radio industry. This led in time to opposition. Also, the Act left some major conflicts unresolved, with mandates to the FCC to deal with them, and this resulted in a lengthy period of struggle before regulators, legislators, and courts. The Regional Bell Operating Company, which had accepted local competition in return for permission to enter long distance service, came out ahead in this struggle.
The Act also included, though not at Senator Pressler’s initiative but by amendment, the so-called Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was the first federal legislation that imposed content restrictions on the Internet. These restrictions were quickly struck down by a near-unanimous SCOTUS in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union.
The Act has had also a major impact internationally. Since its inception, the World Trade Organization has adopted parts of the act near verbatim.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996--the first time the telecom and media laws were comprehensively updated in 62 years--thus had major impacts. It accelerated developments in the electronic sector, helped the Internet become a mass medium, and triggered one of the greatest booms (and busts) in American economic history.
Ironically, though the law was a rare legislative achievement in terms of bipartisan reform, it led to Pressler’s defeat in his re-election bid for a fourth Senate term, losing to Tim Johnson in 1996. Johnson successfully argued that instead of promoting the economy of his home state of South Dakota, Pressler was promoting out-of-state business and high-tech industries, and was in turn supported by them.
Pressler was the only incumbent Republican senator to lose reelection that year. After his reelection defeat, Pressler passed the New York bar and worked as a lawyer there, serving on several corporate boards and as a visiting professor and Senior Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the Thomas Hawkins Johnson Visiting Scholar at the West Point Military Academy, where he lectures on international relations and has advised cadets seeking Rhodes scholarships and other graduate fellowships.
Pressler attempted a political comeback in 2002 by running for the South Dakota's open at-large House seat. However, he was defeated in the Republican primary by popular Governor Bill Janklow, who went on to defeat Democrat Stephanie Herseth in the general election. Pressler was since appointed as an official observer of Ukraine's national election in December 2004.
In the ten years since leaving Congress, Pressler has served as a senior adviser to Salomon Smith Barney and to Monticello Capital. For six years, he was a senior partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm of O'Connor and Hannan; and he subsequently formed his own law firm, The Pressler Group. He makes frequent trips to India as a member of the Board of Directors of Infosys Technologies Ltd in Bangalore. He has lectured at over 20 universities in China, India and the U.S. Pressler lives and works in both Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Pressler is currently an Adjunct Professor of Telecommunication/Internet Policy at Baruch College (City University of New York). He has been awarded a Fulbright Senior Lectureship at the University of Bologna, Italy for Spring semester '09 to lecture on international relations.
Pressler was awarded the following medals and citations for his two tours of duty as an Army Lieutenant (1967-68) in Vietnam which are included on his DD Form 214: Bronze Star Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Meritorious Unit Commendation with one Oak Leaf Cluster, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with four Bronze Service Stars, Vietnam Campaign Ribbon with Device, Overseas Service Bars, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Unit Citation Badge.
He is a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, the Phi Beta Kappa National Association, the Century Club and the Harvard Club of New York, the Cosmos Club and the Metropolitan Club of Washington DC, the Vietnam Veterans Association and the American Rhodes Scholars Association.
Pressler is noted for being the only member of Congress to refuse to take a bribe from undercover FBI agents and then to report the bribe attempt to the FBI during the Abscam investigations in 1980. John Murtha also declined the bribe, but expressed interest in later opportunities. Pressler was also the key sponsor of the Pressler Amendment which prohibited Pakistan from developing a nuclear weapon. When President George H. W. Bush determined that Pakistan had developed such a weapon, aid and many commercial relations to Pakistan were cut off.