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Rate cut doesn't rate

A week ago, it looked as though the Torricelli amendment to the Shays-Meehan campaign- finance-reform bill might make it into law despite major flaws. As late as Wednesday morning, Michigan Republican Fred Upton was warning broadcasters they had best get on the phone to their representatives.

Instead, an amendment stripping the requirement that TV stations provide even deeper discounts to federal candidates passed with such ease we may have to rechristen the surviving bill May-Sheehan for the lobbying skills of old hands like NAB's Jim May and Tribune's Shaun Sheehan in helping the industry dodge another bullet.

Why did Torricelli tank? Broadcast lobbyists are good, and there was enough bad in the amendment that many legislators realized they could, and should, live without it.

The fact that the enforced rate cut applied to television but not to radio or newspapers or billboards or transit or direct mail struck some, this page included, as unfair. The fact that it applied only to federal candidates and not to state or local struck many, this page as well, as unfair. And, more broadly, there were legitimate First Amendment concerns about the degree to which some Washington types feel they can micromanage political speech.

Ultimately, though, the most practical arguments came from a pair of Democrats. Hawaii's Neil Abercrombie pointed out that, if candidates pay less, someone will be paying more: "I'm not going back into my district and telling people that are trying to make a living, especially after 9/11, that they've got to pay more so that people can listen to me." Michigan's John Dingell put an even finer point on it: "We are putting our hands in the pockets of the home folks to get a campaign subsidy. I don't have the arrogance to vote for Torricelli or to say it is in the public interest." Fortunately for broadcasters, neither did most of his colleagues.

How can we help you?

Michigan Republican Fred Upton, who chairs the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, was proving a friend to broadcasters (see above) in more ways than one last week. At a conference on the progress of the DTV transition, the finger-pointing in Washington over the various snags in the timetable gave way to a helping hand. Saying the transition was his top priority and sympathizing with the millions broadcasters have spent to try to make the transition, he suggested that more pressure be put on the cable and equipment industries to resolve compatibility and copy-protection issues.

It is a waste of time to play the blame game. Rather than worrying about how much to penalize broadcasters (the budget proposal for spectrum fees for late adopters), Washington should be doing all it can to help. That should extend to the FCC, which this week will begin receiving DTV waiver requests from local stations.