Legislation designed to facilitate the transition to digital television could encounter serious hurdles on Capitol Hill, top congressional aides said last week.
Jessica Wallace, legislative counsel on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) plans to unveil a digital TV bill in June or July.
But before the bill will have a realistic shot of clearing the committee, Wallace said, Tauzin and other top lawmakers will have to "educate" some of the newer members to make them more comfortable with its "thorny" details, which are the focus of intense political pressure.
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"Members don't typically like to have to insert themselves in business as much as this," Wallace said at an American Cable Association-sponsored panel. "We have to start educating members about the tensions between government and industry on this. … We have new members and Chairman Tauzin is sensitive about making them make those difficult votes."
The committee is looking at ways to "increase members' comfort level" with the issue in coming months, she said.
If Tauzin's panel does approve the bill, it could face other obstacles in getting to the House floor, said Ali Amirhooshmand, a top telecommunications aide to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
"The House leadership does not like members to take hard votes on the floor or bring bills to the floor that will give members heartburn or have the opportunity of not passing," Amirhooshmand told the ACA panel.
Wallace seconded that viewpoint, adding that the House has little incentive to approve a DTV bill if the Senate isn't inclined to act similarly.
"If we ram something through the House, it does no good because then it languishes in the Senate, and vice versa, and it has to be much more cooperative to get any piece of meaningful legislation enacted on a timely basis," Wallace said.
"This is one of our concerns on the DTV front," she continued. "These are a lot of thorny issues that should have been decided by the FCC one or two commissions ago."
Speaking at an ACA luncheon last Tuesday, Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, illustrated the political dilemma that many lawmakers confront as they consider Tauzin's DTV bill, which Terry predicted would become one of the "brushfire issues of the day."
One likely flashpoint: Whether dual must-carry provisions for broadcasters should be included in the bill, Terry told a room full of small cable operators.
"There doesn't seem like there's a lot enthusiasm to mandate the dual must-carry," he said. "The broadcasters are working that issue very hard. They've made that the No. 1 issue.
"And politically, that puts us in a real tough position. That tough position is you and the broadcasters are our friends. And politically, we hate to choose sides between friends."
Terry added that his hope was that a "resolution of that issue falls out of the sky," but he acknowledged that was unlikely. Instead, he said, "I really believe that Congress is going to have to step up and make some tough decisions."
States News Service