DTV bill passes in Senate Committee

Washington (DC) - The DTV bill, which sets a transition date for digital television transmission in the United States at 7 April 2009, has passed the Senate Commerce Committee. From here, it will be reported to the floor of the Senate, where it will become open to debate by the full Senate. Although some votes recorded were by proxy, it is believed the bill passed through the Committee unanimously.

Amended to this bill was a so-called "manager's package," the language of which was debated between committee chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R - Alaska) and committee member and former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D - Massachusetts). As it stands now, the manager's package states that if more than $10 billion is raised by the Federal Communications Commission, through the auction of public spectrum reclaimed from VHF broadcast TV, the excess money would be used to pay down the federal deficit. While this was commendable, argued Sen. Kerry, certain excess moneys should perhaps be earmarked for emergency services involved not only in the cleanup of the Gulf Coast, but also for overhauls and re-supply in preparation for the next natural or man-made disaster. Kerry cited the Coast Guard as one example of a potential worthy recipient.

Despite support from the Committee, this bill now faces an uphill battle in the Senate. It will be difficult to convince the Senate at large, and perhaps House members in conference committees thereafter, that billions of dollars should be spent to subsidize the purchase of set-top digital-to-analog converter boxes to, as Sen. Stevens told luncheon attendees yesterday, "everyone who has a TV who needs a box," when senators agree so much money has yet to be spent on people who don't have a TV and need a home.

At one point during this afternoon's markup session, Sen. Stevens acknowledged that the final price tag per unit for set-top boxes purchased under the terms of the current bill, has not actually been ascertained, although staff members have been working under the assumption of a $50-per-unit ballpark estimate. Another amendment to the bill, which passed the Committee, will earmark a portion of funds raised through auction to help subsidize the immediate purchase of special radio equipment by first responders. Sen. Stevens told senators who raised objections to this earmark that it was within the Senate rules for the excess funds to be spent toward anything under the Committee's purview. Such a statement may encourage the bill's opponents to look for other earmarks.

During the debate over Sen. John McCain's (R - Arizona) defeated amendment to move forward the transition date to 7 April 2007, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D - West Virginia) warned the Committee that all other appropriations bills drafted by the Commerce Committee to raise funds for homeland security purposes, have gone down to defeat in the full Senate, and asked why the Committee would want to cast the DTV transition as a homeland security measure. (Curiously, Rockefeller was speaking in support of Sen. McCain, whose original amendment did precisely that.) Sen. Stevens responded by saying that bills failed on account of the fact that moneys appropriated were "taken from Treasury on a deficit basis," meaning that they were allocated without a clear means of compensating the federal treasury. The current bill, Stevens argued, spends no money whatsoever from budget allocations. Then why, asked senators, is this considered a budget bill, subject to provisions such as the "Byrd rule" which limits bills being debated to those which concern budget line-items? The question was left on the table.