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Editorial: ThisClose

They say nobody should have to see how the regulatory sausage is made in Washington. Nothing better illustrated the point than whathappened over the past few weeks, when the country was put through the wringer by a process that, in regulatory sausage-making terms, reminded us of the Simpsons episode where Apu chases the hot dog across the floor as it picks up hair, dirt and we don’t know what all else. If we’ve used that analogy before, sorry. Had we known this was going to happen, we would have saved it. (And no, that wasn’t meant to be a joke about Social Security entitlements.)

No doubt the endless wrangling, fakes and feints were good for the political and economic reporters in town. The story occupied more of the national media’s news budgets than the meltdown of September 2008—the last time we felt like we had just stepped off a roller coaster into a buzzsaw.

But for the industry, this latest fight may also be remembered as the runaway vehicle that nearly carried a troubling take on spectrum auction legislation into law. With the auctions estimated to raise billions for deficit reduction, and powerful senators like Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) pushing to get the auctions approved before Sept. 11, spectrum auctions were appended to a compromise bill backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

For a few days, broadcasters were looking at language that provided for multiple auctions and essentially gave the FCC carte blanche to repack and move remaining stations without explicit protections for coverage areas or signal quality. For broadcasters, those protections are essential for making them whole after the FCC takes another little—make that not so little—piece of their heart.

Fortunately, the language was stripped on the way to a bill that could not get enough grudging votes from both sides for passage. Not, apparently, because cooler heads prevailed—though we expect there was some broadcaster muscle—but because the Democrats promised the Republicans there would be no revenue raisers in the bill, which in addition to no new taxes meant no new auctions…at least for now.

Reid, speaking on the Senate floor to likely a larger C-SPAN audience than on a normal Saturday morning, made a point of saying the auctions are important and need to happen. Perhaps, but not the way they were about to, and not without more protections for broadcasters.

It will be at least September before Congress gets together on a stand-alone bill, which ought to include language that makes preserving a robust broadcasting business one of those national priorities everybody always talks about.

And when legislators do take up a stand-alone bill, they should have a copy of a letter sent last week by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, whose diverse 200-plus membership includes everyone from major unions to the AARP, NAACP, ACLU, the Elks and Common Cause.

“In our view, any legislation affecting household access to broadcast television must direct the Federal Communications Commission to make maximum efforts to preserve viewer access to over-the-air television and to consider the needs of communities that rely exclusively on over-theair signals,” it stated. This is our view as well, and should be the view of everyone who fights fiercely on all issues for rights of minorities against government actions that fail to give the requisite weight to their needs.