Washington Watch


Congress Divided Over 527 Dilemma

The House and Senate appear split on how to deal with “527s,” groups named after the law that allowed donors to circumvent federal restrictions on campaign contributions.

Non-profit groups such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and MoveOn.org pumped nearly $400 million into mostly negative TV ads during the 2004 presidential campaign.

Two bills with wildly divergent approaches to dealing with 527s are pending in each house of Congress. Consequently, it may be impossible for either one to pass.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) is co-sponsoring a plan that would eliminate the cap limiting an individual's total contributions to all federal campaigns to $95,000 every two years. His plan is supported by House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Ney (R-Ohio), who plans to push the measure through.

Pence says the limit weakened national political parties and candidates and transformed 527s into magnets for wealthy donors willing to donate millions to influence campaigns. Rather than impose further regulations on 527s, he wants political parties returned “to their rightful place in the political process.”

A rival plan co-sponsored by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), an author of the 2002 campaign-finance law that led to the dramatic reliance on 527s, would instead make donations to the groups subject to same limits and disclosure requirements as direct donations to political parties and candidates. His bill has the edge in the Senate, where it has the backing of Trent Lott (R-Miss.), chairman of the Rules Committee, the panel that decides ground rules for every bill debated on the Senate floor.

NAB To Bare Guide To Responsible Programming

The National Association of Broadcasters will unveil its long-awaited alternative to the government's indecency crackdown this summer, nearly 16 months after the trade group pledged to draw up voluntary steps that stations could take to clean up their airwaves.

“We are saying to the government, 'Let us have a crack at this and see if we can self-regulate,” LIN Television Chairman Gary Chapman told an NAB convention panel in Las Vegas. Chapman serves on a task force of industry executives organized one year ago to cool the heat from the Hill. Chapman said the group aims to present its report and recommendations this summer.

The recommendations are likely to include consumer awareness programs for the V-chip and rating system. Stations also will share their “best practices” for training staff and to avoid on-air violations.

Advocates have also raised the possibility of reviving the so-called family hour (8-9 p.m.), an idea favored by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. But execs familiar with the plan say it is unlikely that the NAB will recommend that stations institute a prime time family viewing period.

Barton DTV Bill Due in Two Weeks

Digital-television–transition legislation being drafted by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) will be ready in two or three weeks, the House Commerce Committee chairman says. The bill will definitely contain a “hard” deadline for cutting off old analog signals and making stations operate digital-only.

A provision that would expand broadcasters' digital–cable- carriage rights is also still under discussion. With apologies to broadcasters, Barton said he still favors a Dec. 31, 2006, deadline but conceded that he'll compromise if other members want more time. However, he ruled out extending the deadline as far out as 2009, as suggested by the FCC. “If we go a little later than 2006, I'm OK with that. But I don't mean three years.”

Barton continues to support using some proceeds from auctioning reclaimed analog spectrum to provide a subsidy to low-income people that would cover the cost of converter boxes needed to keep old analog sets working in the all-digital world. The cost of the boxes, he said, could be as low as $35 each. Previous estimates pegged the low-end price tag at $50 a box.