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Editorial: Snow Job in Washington

Washington for once was appropriately panic-stricken last week—about storms that would have drawn respect from hearty Minnesotans. But unfortunately, it isn't just snow that can paralyze Washington.

Congress returned from its holiday break last month embroiled in a health-care debate and faced with a new budget that will take up much of its attention. That left two media-related bills—a satellite blanket-license reauthorization and a shield bill—to swing in the wind after a five-year warning of a Dec. 31, 2009, deadline on the former, and half a decade of work on the latter.

The first bill allows satellite broadcasters to continue to deliver out-of-market TV station signals to viewers who can't get their local affiliates. The second protects journalists from overzealous government officials by granting them a qualified protection from having to give up information or identify sources. The shield bill has a number of carve-outs, however, for national security, threats of bodily harm, and sensitive personal and business information. The bill tips the balance to the courts to make a determination of when a reporter's privilege is trumped by national security.

There finally appeared to be movement on the satellite reauthorization bill last week, with a Senate version circulating that would get local TV station signals into the 28 or so markets where satellite operators don't yet carry them. That bill either has to pass by March 1 or get yet another extension, or many thousands will lose TV station signals. This doesn't come as a surprise; the bill has to be renewed or phased out every five years, so there has been a flashing warning sign that Congress needs to get on the stick.

The sat bill was appended to a must-pass jobs bill, but it was looking less likely there would be any action last week thanks to the snowstorms. Either way, the fact that Congress had to pass an eleventh-hour extension late last year of a bill whose deadline had been in the rear-view mirror for five years is an embarrassment.

But the shield-bill inaction is far more frustrating. The sat bill will either get passed or extended, but the shield bill remains in limbo, with one veteran participant saying that the short-term prospects were not good given everything else on Congress' plate.

Snowstorms are “acts of God,” an insurance term rather than an invocation of the deity. But the lack of movement on important bills is an inaction that is easy to explain: Legislators have little accountability for the snail's pace of some of their deliberations or the petulance that can translate into a single senator putting a hold on a bill for any reason—or no reason at all.

Meanwhile, satellite operators and broadcasters are left to hope that they are allowed to continue to do business together at the whim of the legislature, and journalists continue to face threats to their independence, livelihood and personal freedom from an overheated government.