Spectrum language removed from debt ceiling legislation

When Congress reached a compromise on the budget bill earlier this week, broadcasters breathed a brief sigh of relief. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s plan to include spectrum auctions in his debt package was ultimately removed from the legislation that ultimately passed.

However, the broadcasters only got a brief respite since the country’s financial woes are far from over.

Reid had called for the spectrum auctions to raise much-needed revenue, and offered to pay broadcasters $1 billion to assist in repacking the airwaves after the spectrum was sold. However, the FCC would have had a free hand in that repacking, something broadcasters don’t want. Reid’s approach would have generated about $13.1 billion in savings.

But, in the chaotic give and take between the House and Senate in the final hours over the weekend, Reid’s plan to include the broadcast spectrum was somehow dropped from the ultimate package.

“We are pleased that the negotiated debt ceiling bill does not threaten free and local broadcasting,” NAB President Gordon Smith said. “NAB will continue working with lawmakers on incentive auction legislation that is truly voluntary. Our goal is to ensure that TV stations choosing not to go out of business will be held harmless, and that tens of millions of Americans who enjoy local news, entertainment, sports and lifesaving weather warnings from broadcasters will not be penalized.”

It appears now there will be no action of the stand-alone spectrum auction legislation until after the Congressional break in September. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has called the legislation to pass Congress by the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11.

Rockefeller, a co-sponsor of a stand-alone spectrum bill, said he was disappointed that the language was removed from the budget legislation. He blamed the House of Representatives for “failing to make communications safer and more reliable for first responders.” The auctions will be used to fund an interoperable broadband network.

However, quick passage remains a goal for Rockefeller despite the budget setback.

“I will continue to fight to make sure that by the 10th anniversary of 9/11 we have this bill signed into law,” Rockefeller said.

There is bipartisan support for the spectrum auctions. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) criticized Reid for offering broadcasters $1 billion to assist with repacking. He wanted them to get nothing.

“A television broadcaster got the spectrum for free,” McCain said during a speech on the Senate floor. “Now, we’re supposed to ask the taxpayers to give them $1 billion to give back the spectrum that we own?”