Hollings Sets Retirement Plans

Commerce's ranking Dem and frequent broadcast backer to exit in 2004

In his thick deep-South brogue, veteran Sen. Ernest Hollings last week announced plans to leave Congress next year, bringing an end to his sometimes-friendly, but more recently angry relationship with the media.

From a Columbia, S.C. legal training center that bears his name, the seven-term senator confirmed his pending retirement in a talk with reporters that was more often a lament on the current state of the nation than a reflection on his long career. "I'm truly worried about the country's direction," he said.

Hollings could just as easily been talking about his current views of broadcasters and cable companies. Despite plans to step down, Hollings isn't relaxing yet and neither can supporters of industry deregulation.

He is a lead sponsors of legislation that would reinstate the 35% cap on one company's TV household reach, which in one form or another is expected to come to a vote before the full Senate next month.

Recognizing Hollings' role in that and other broadcaster-backed efforts, National Association of Broadcasters President Eddie Fritts said he was saddened by the news. "Fritz Hollings is a Capitol Hill legend, with unquestioned integrity and a fierce independence that has served his country and his South Carolina constituents exceedingly well. He's been a friend to free, local broadcasting for 35 years."

But Hollings and the NAB don't see eye-to-eye on everything. The lawmaker for years has opposed the industry's recently successful effort to eliminate restrictions on local broadcast/newspaper crossownership and is pushing to roll back that as well.

Hollings also won the appreciation of the cable industry for pushing the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which eased regulation of the industry and paved the way for local franchises to get into telephone and broadband service. "Fritz Hollings is one of the true giants in the United States Senate and the cable industry will miss his knowledge and leadership on telecommunications issues," said Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Conveniently, Sachs left out that Hollings' role in regulating cable rates four years earlier.

With Hollings' decision, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii becomes the odds-on favorite to become the Commerce Committee's ranking Democrat. Inouye is next in seniority among committee Democrats and the ranking member post would be a step up in power from his current position as top Democrat on the Indian Affairs Committee.

Hollings' retirement gives Republicans a second strong opportunity to pick up a southern seat in their bid to maintain control of the Senate in 2004.

Several Republicans have already started campaigning for the seat. Hollings would be the third senator to retire in 2004, according to the Associated Press. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) and Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) have already announced plans not to run for new terms.

Decisions by Hollings and Miller to step down complicate Democrats' strategy for holding on to all of their 48 seats and gaining seats enough elsewhere to regain control of the Senate. In addition, Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) are seeking the Democratic presidential nomination and have not yet said whether they will run for new Senate terms.