Curb Your Anxiety!

Congress won't have much time for media law this year

Congress will return with a bang later this month, but the fireworks will quickly fizzle out. That's because, on many days, the politicians will be out campaigning. The Senate is expected to begin debate over a huge federal spending bill that, among its many controversial measures, would set the national broadcast-ownership cap at 39% of TV households. Although Democrats are threatening a filibuster to block the vote, they're given little chance of delaying passage more than a day or two.

Beyond that action, no significant media legislation is expected to clear Capitol Hill in 2004. Congress, for the most part, will be preoccupied with reelection campaigns—either their own or the presidential race. Fewer than 70 full working days are scheduled for the year. During most weeks, votes will be held only on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

"It's going to be tough to do more than hold hearings on the most controversial issues," said one Capitol Hill aide.

But there's an active schedule. Already, lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill are gearing up to examine the FCC's enforcement of broadcast-indecency restrictions and rules for media ownership. House Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) is expected to hold a hearing on setting a hard date for finally returning analog TV spectrum to the government.

He hasn't ruled out a try at DTV legislation, too. "Admittedly, it's a heavy lift in a presidential election year," said Tauzin aide Ken Johnson, "but, because there's so much at stake with making DTV succeed, it could be doable."

Tauzin, through whose committee nearly all relevant bills must pass, is something of a lame duck. He is believed to be in line to replace retiring Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America. However, he isn't expected to leave his congressional post until March or April.

Tauzin has said he is staying on in order to give another try at a sweeping energy-reform bill. The fate of that bill will be determined by February, Johnson predicts.

Some say Tauzin is staying at his post for a few more months because of idiosyncrasies in Louisiana election law that will boost GOP chances of retaining his seat if his name stays on the ballot through March. Johnson denies that.

Tauzin's expected replacement atop the committee, Joe Barton (R-Texas), has been enmeshed in energy issues and isn't expected to move quickly on media-related legislation in the short time remaining.

On the Senate side, Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain has said he wants to move an FCC-reauthorization bill that would make a variety of changes to broadcast regulation. But, with his House counterparts out of action, it's unlikely he will be able to move the bill beyond his committee.

In June, McCain's panel passed a bill that would have lengthened the time between FCC reviews of media-ownership rules from two to four years. The measure also would have phased out the discount allowing UHF stations to count half as much toward the national ownership cap as VHF stations.

McCain too is a bit of a lame duck. Senate Republicans limit committee chairmen's terms, and the Arizona lawmaker is scheduled to be replaced at the panel's helm by Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) if the GOP retains Senate control.

The one major must-pass bill will come out of the Senate and House Judiciary committees, which must originate the legislation to extend the Satellite Home Viewer Act, spelling out when satellite-TV distributors can import out-of-town signals of broadcast networks to viewers in local markets. The law expires at the end of 2004 and Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have indicated that they want to reauthorize it soon.

EchoStar Chairman Charlie Ergen is likely to put up a fight that could prolong the debate. He wants a provision that would make it easier for him to offer distant networks' high-definition programming.