Communications Bills Stalled by Wall St., Election

Federal shield law, media ownership among bills on hold

The latest attempt at a federal shield law was introduced in 2007 to much fanfare. It was a bipartisan bill given the best chance in decades of finally giving journalists and their sources protections from overzealous prosecutors, a protection most states already grant.

But with only a sliver of a chance of passage in a lame-duck session, that effort will likely have to wait until a new Congress and administration.

Shield-law advocates shouldn't feel picked upon. That is just one of a number of communications-related efforts that either failed to gain sufficient traction or were introduced late enough in the session to run into an impasse over an energy bill. Then the financial meltdown got the full attention of legislators even as they are trying to escape Washington this week to return to home territory. They've got campaigning to do.

As Senate Commerce Committee general counsel Christine Kurth told a group of broadcasters in Washington, D.C., last week, “It is increasingly hard to pass any stand-alone legislation.”

According to lobbyists pushing for the shield law, it was hung up by a variety of factors, including a battle between bill sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and the blocking of judicial appointments, the fight over an energy bill and, as it relates to the shield law, a breakdown of bipartisanship over the issues of national security and the definition of a blogger.

The Justice Department, backed by a group of Republicans, had been pushing hard against the shield bill, arguing that it hamstrings prosecutors and has implications for the war on terror. But an additional wrinkle emerged in what some Democrats reportedly saw as a too-loose definition of journalists that included bloggers.

Other bills that likely will have to wait for the next Congress, if then, include the Federal Communications Commission-blocking resolution announced with much fanfare by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would block an easing of media-ownership rules. That bill actually passed the Senate by a voice vote, but a House version has not gone anywhere, mirroring a similar attempt to block the FCC's media-ownership-rule rewrite in 2003.

A bill that would have allowed stations on the border with Mexico to continue broadcasting in analog for either four or five years after the transition to digital passed the Senate but has not moved in the House and is unlikely to do so. The issue got some attention in Hill hearings the last few weeks, including from English-language broadcasters on the border that are opposed to it.

Amy Levine, senior counsel to the House Commerce Committee, said the border issue was “a really tricky one,” adding that one of the concerns Congress had was that “if you were to delay the transition, what would happen in four or five years when there is no longer a coupon program? Would the burden then be on Congress to create another coupon program since Congress has delayed the date? How do we help these people, who are the poorest of the poor?”

Then there was the bill that would boost the government's pursuit of intellectual-property pirates -- a bill backed by TV and movie studios and publishers (including B&C parent Reed Business Information). It appeared to be on a fast track but ran into a wall last week with a letter from the Department of Justice and the administration stating its opposition to various provisions.

While stand-alone bills don't stand much of a chance, the communications-related bill with arguably the best chance of making it into law would give the National Telecommunications and Information Administration an additional $20 million to send out DTV-to-analog converter-box coupons and give the FCC $20 million for DTV education/outreach. Both of those were appended last week to the continuing resolution that would allow the government to continue to be funded through the March installation of a new administration. It was passed by the House last week.


Legislators are worried about the deadline for the DTV transition and the possibility of viewer backlash -- a point made over the past two weeks in oversight hearings on the transition. One lobbyist said the Senate could pass the bill before Monday.

Another recent entrant that could have some potential in a lame-duck session would allow broadcasters to continue in analog for a couple of weeks beyond the deadline for pulling the plug on full-power analog. But that's considered a long shot.

B&C reported two weeks ago that there was growing interest in allowing broadcasters to keep their analog signal on for a few more weeks past the cutoff date, as did stations in the Wilmington, N.C., early analog shutoff. The FCC could not allow TV stations to do that after Feb. 17, 2009, without help from Congress, however, since the law states that broadcasters have to pull the plug on analog by that date, with no wiggle room.

The bill was introduced just last week by House Energy & Commerce Committee member Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and co-sponsored by fellow California representative Hilda Solis (D).

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