McAdams On: Legislation

10/9/2009 12:41:22 PM
It’s that time of year when days get shorter and lawmakers in Washington have less time to spend an enormous amount of money. The pace of hearings accelerates and bills are churned out like sausage before Oktoberfest. Irrational legislation based on what seem to be logical premises get thrown into the mix. Such concepts often become law not because of contextual merit, but because of what’s attached--earmarks.

Jim Harper of the Cato Institute maintains WashingtonWatch.com, where he tracks every bill proffered in each Congressional session. Harper holds an annual earmark contest, imploring followers to ferret out the pork lawmakers tack onto bills for pet projects. Among the prizes for this year’s sleuths, an Amazon Kindle, an iPod Shuffle and a “deluxe regular fruitcake.”

Readers tallied up more than 40,000 earmarks comprising billions in spending. The allocations are all over the board. Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) is looking to get $2 million for a contractor to keep track of the Navy’s stuff. That Navy. The one with all the navigators. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) is seeking $2.5 million for pasteurizing egg shells to prevent bird flu just in case it spreads on egg shells. It might be cheaper just to tell people to wash eggs before they’re cracked, but that would make sense. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is looking to take $9.5 million back to the great state of Montana for a hypersonic wind tunnel. Surely the same effect can be achieved between Constitution and Independence avenues.

The list clearly goes on. Not all earmarks will pass into law, but these things do influence lawmaking more than the actual issues. There’s one guy on Capitol Hill that works for the nation. The rest work for an individual state or a portion thereof. The seeming debates on national issues seemingly followed by the mainstream press are mostly the stuff of obfuscation. There are people who go to Washington with every intention of being a pillar of integrity. A couple of cognacs and a Cohiba later, and the shine wears off the windy car lot back home. Then it’s game on; time to make a haul for the home constituency.

They call it “Potomac Fever” back in the ’hood. Some legislators get so addled by it, they start believing themselves. Harper has a tagline for the fruits of that condition--legislation that promises more than it can possibly deliver. “And a pony.” E.g., “Congress will eliminate loud TV commercials... and give you a pony!”

Frankly, I wish Congress would give me a pony, but I can’t imagine what the poor creature would look like after being legislated into my care. (Shudders.) Neither can I imagine how slapping a loudness law on broadcasters is going to make the ad industry stop caterwauling. (The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act made it past a House subcommittee this week. It would direct the FCC to create a broadcast loudness standard within a year.)

Advertisers have a long and hallowed history of caterwauling. Outlawing it seems a bit communist, or at the very least, ridiculous.

First of all, broadcasters have a clue. See, they are people, and they watch TV, too. They don’t especially enjoy getting blown out of the room by a hyperactive guy mutilating vegetables and shredding cheese. And they’ve secretly been working on loudness levels for years. It’s just that there was a digital transition in there. Despite that being legislated as well, it was one giant-sized science experiment after which a lot of engineers are still cleaning up. It was a little like going to the moon, but without the space travel and those unfortunate Gosselin people. And remember, Neil nearly ran out of gas before getting to the moon. That could have been a $24 billion “woopsie,” as there were no Piggly Wigglies on the moon back then.

The DTV transition didn’t have a similar major-league near miss, but rather a lot of smaller complications to mop up. Restoring reception to households that lost it has been the primary concern. Making the audio arrive at the same time as the video has been another, since the two are delivered separately in digital transmission. That it happens at all is something of a miracle.

Loudness hasn’t really been the most pressing issue in broadcasting lately, but it’s on the agenda. They’ll get to it without legislation. Honest they will. However, the effort to criminalize loud commercials is instructive on many levels. 1) Lawmakers watch TV. 2) They are annoyed by loud commercials. 3) They have not learned, as my father did the first time he used a remote, to use the mute button.

Then again, the mute button has no earmarks.

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