In a behind-the-scenes move that could all but eliminate Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s visibility on media industry legislation, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has proposed to ax the Senate Communications Subcommittee-the panel that Sen. McCain planned to chair this year.
If the reorganization is implemented within the next couple of weeks, as expected, sources said Sen. Stevens, the new Senate Commerce Committee chairman, will fold the communications subcommittee’s traditional responsibilities into the Commerce Committee.
Sen. Stevens will then be the undisputed champion of media industry legislation in the Senate, and Sen. McCain will have to find another legislative subcommittee over which to preside.
“Sen. Stevens, now that he’s on top, wants all the toys for himself,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
Sen. McCain’s looming ouster would appear to be good news for the broadcasting and cable TV industries, frequent targets of the maverick Republican’s legislative missiles over the years.
Indeed, shortly before term limits forced Sen. McCain to step down as chairman of the Commerce Committee last year, he advocated a proposal that would have forced TV stations to return their analog channels and convert to digital by 2009-which broadcasters opposed.
He also used his chairmanship to press for such industry-unfriendly initiatives as free advertising time for political candidates and a la carte regulations that would allow consumers to pick and pay for only the cable TV channels they want.
“Everything the National Association of Broadcasters was for, he was instinctively against,” said one industry source.
The stakes for the industry in the leadership issue are huge this year because Congress is expected to begin a major rewrite of telecommunications industry legislation, and Sen. Stevens has demonstrated himself to be far more sympathetic to industry arguments than Sen. McCain.
Said the Center for Digital Democracy’s Mr. Chester, “It is a victory for the industry because it makes it much easier for industry lobbyists to consolidate power over the process.”
On a personal level, sources said there’s little love lost between Sens. Stevens and McCain. One of the more recent suggestions of hard feelings: When Sen. Stevens joined a majority of other lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee to derail the 2009 DTV conversion bill last year, Sen. McCain publicly rebuked them as “water carriers” for the NAB.
Melanie Alvord, a spokesperson for Sen. Stevens, said the committee reorganization plan, which was still being discussed last week, will include a new subcommittee that Sen. Stevens believes will allow Sen. McCain to address some of his key legislative concerns.
She also said the proposed reorganization recognizes the precedent established during Sen. McCain’s chairmanship during the last Congress, when the majority (29 of 37) of communications industry-related hearings were held at the full committee level instead of before the communications subcommittee.
“This is not of vindictiveness,” Ms. Alvord said. “Sen. Stevens wants to work on communications issues.”
A spokesperson for Sen. McCain said, “Sen. McCain is not going to comment on something that’s still in its formative stages.”