Bloodied from the campaign finance reform battle in the Senate, broadcasters may fare better in the House, where two powerful lawmakers oppose or are troubled by a plan to lower the rates broadcasters charge politicians for television ad time.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., head of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, sympathize with broadcasters on the issue, Electronic Media has learned.
Both congressmen regulate the television industry and have tremendous influence over their colleagues on media-related issues.
At stake are potentially millions in lost revenue from provisions added to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill that force TV stations to offer politicians rock-bottom rates for ads.
The language, crafted by New Jersey Democratic senators Robert Torricelli and Jon Corzine, requires TV stations to charge politicians the cheapest rate they’ve offered over the past 365 days for a particular time slot.
“I haven’t seen the language. I’m inclined to oppose that,” Rep. Upton said in an interview last week.
Rep. Tauzin has serious concerns as well but wants to review the arguments- possibly at a hearing before his panel-before finalizing his position.
“Philosophically, he’s always been opposed to the idea of our government creating special deals for politicians,” spokesman Ken Johnson said.
“Politicians don’t get the same preferential treatment from newspapers, so why are we singling out television?” he said. “Broadcasters, in our mind, already create a great deal of public-service programming through news, local programming and coverage of special events.”
The National Association of Broadcasters was dealt a huge setback when the Senate approved the Torricelli-Corzine amendment two weeks ago and passed the overall bill last week by a vote of 59 to 41. It now moves to the House for consideration.
So how did an association known for its lobbying might lose such a big fight?
“Eddie and Jim clearly got blindsided by this vote,” said a broadcast industry source, referring to NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts and Jim May, executive vice president of government relations.
“Some of this was personal-they’re tired of paying the rates or getting [ads] bumped,” the source said of senators, echoing the remarks of others.
Under the present system, stations can pre-empt political ads-as long as they air some time the same day-if other advertisers pay more for the time slots. That’s forced some candidates to shell out bigger bucks to secure prime-time slots to reach target audiences. The amendment bars such pre-emptions.
“They live this. They know they’re getting gouged,” said Paul Taylor, executive director of the watchdog Alliance for Better Campaigns, which advocates free airtime and supports the amendment.
“Senator after senator came up [during the floor debate] and told their war stories about how much they’re paying.”
Lawmakers also appear fed up with broadcasters over other issues, such as the slow rollout of digital television and network hesitancy to curb sexually explicit and violent programming, sources said.
NAB spokesman Jeff Bobeck responded: “If you’re a candidate, this proposal on its face looks appealing because it looks like it reduces the costs of campaigns. It does not, because it drives campaigns to spend the same amount of money on more ads.” He said if House members look carefully at the plan they’ll reject it.
NAB maintains the amendment will backfire and end up angering and alienating voters. It also views the provision as unconstitutional.
Broadcasters now hope to derail McCain-Feingold or at least the advertising rate amendment in the House, where some observers think they have more sway.
There’s one or more TV stations in virtually every congressional district, and station officials are expected to lobby their congressmen about their concerns.
In addition, House members tend to be less reliant on costly media campaigns than senators. NAB also expects to have more time to educate congressmen on its position.
Meanwhile, broadcasters may get a boost from the fact that the McCain-Feingold legislation is expected to face a tougher battle in the House and is already drawing fire from House Majority Whip Tom Delay, R-Texas, and other Republican leaders.
Sources last week said the lower chamber, which along with the Senate is in recess until April 23, may not begin debate on the legislation until this summer.
There are two paths in the House. The chamber could vote on McCain-Feingold or similar legislation offered earlier by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass. The House has twice passed the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bills, but those lawmakers prefer a vote on McCain-Feingold.
The Shays-Meehan bills did not contain provisions affecting the lowest unit rate, because such language was stripped out. But both congressmen support the addition of such language to any reform bill they reintroduce.
Even if the House passes a campaign finance bill, it’s almost certain to be different from the Senate one.
That would force lawmakers to hold a House-Senate conference to iron out differences and meld the measures into one.
There are already rumblings in Washington that GOP senators angry with the bill’s progress will block Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., from being named to any House-Senate conference, despite his role as lead sponsor.
And there are more hurdles: if a final version of the legislation emerges from a conference, it would have to be passed by each chamber.
Next, President George W. Bush would have to sign it into law. While the president has generally opposed campaign finance legislation, he’s indicated he’ll sign such a bill if one is sent to his desk.