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Indecency bill fails fast track again

Frist-backed move would increase FCC indecency fines

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) once again failed to fast-track an indecency bill through Congress.

On Wednesday afternoon Frist sought to “hotline” — essentially bypass committee debating and voting for immediate Senate approval — a bill that would increase FCC indecency fines tenfold, from the current $32,500 per infraction to $325,000. But Frist was unable to secure the required unanimous consent of his Senate colleagues.

Bill, authored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), does not include other punitive sanctions that a House-passed indecency bill contains. Often mentioned as a likely contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, Frist tried to hotline the House bill earlier this month to no avail (Daily Variety, May 4).

Typically reserved for noncontroversial bills, hotlining is essentially a two-step process. In the first, a senator submits a bill that, if no other senator objects, is automatically passed without a formal vote. If objections arise, as they did Wednesday evening, the senator can later resubmit the bill, again bypassing the relevant committee, for a formal Senate floor vote.

An aide to Brownback said Frist’s office had already “committed” to resubmitting the bill in case the first step failed. The aide said the follow-up attempt would probably occur “in two or three weeks.”

Brownback’s bill had originally been scheduled for debate and mark-up this week in the Senate Commerce Committee, but chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who has said he wants to see if industry can better regulate itself before Congress intervenes, took it off the schedule.

Brownback made a point of delivering a bill shorn of controversial provisions — like fining artists, revoking broadcast licenses and upping fines to $500,000 — contained in other, similar bills.

“The senator has wanted to take small steps on (indecency) so that we can at least start on grounds we all agree on,” the Brownback aide.

A main reason that indecency legislation has stalled in the Senate is that some members think the Brownback bill isn’t tough enough, while others think a tenfold increase in fines is too tough.

One industry exec doubted whether most senators were fully informed about broadcast indecency issues, saying, “There hasn’t been enough talk or discussion” with even the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, or the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.

“I’m sure Jack Valenti is trying to get in to see these people now,” the exec said. Attempting to avert any indecency legislation, former MPAA topper Valenti is leading an industry campaign to persuade members of Congress that existing blocking and filtering technologies are sufficient for protecting kids from inappropriate content.

The four major broadcast networks have already filed court challenges against three recent FCC indecency rulings. Should any indecency legislation upping fines be passed and enacted, the exec said, “the rationale for challenging FCC indecency authority only gets stronger.”

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