Senate having a fine time with indecency

Bill will increase infraction penalties tenfold

The Senate approved late Thursday night a bill increasing broadcast indecency fines tenfold, from $32,500 per infraction to $325,000.

Move comes as the unexpected result of an attempt Wednesday by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to fast-track the bill, authored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas). By Wednesday evening Brownback’s staff had sent an email strongly implying that Frist’s attempt had failed. But Frist was still waiting to hear whether he had the support of colleagues.

Frist’s attempt, known as “hotlining,” which removes a bill from committee purview and submits for immediate approval among all senators, is a rare and often dicey parliamentary move, often reserved for uncontroversial bills. If no senators lodge an objection to the bill, it automatically passes without a formal vote. But it only takes one senator to object to stop a hotlining attempt.

Hotlining usually succeeds or fails within an hour or two, but according to a Brownback aide, the Senate was not able to announce results of Frist’s attempt until the chamber had concluded normal business some time after 10:30 p.m. Thursday. But the aide could not say whether it took all of the roughly 30 hours between the attempt and the announcement to hear back from all other senators.

Brownback’s bill had been stuck in the Senate Commerce Committee. Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) preferred to wait to see if the industry could regulate itself on indecent content before legislating anything.

However, conservative groups have been pressuring the Senate to act, particularly since the House already approved an indecency bill last session.

“Broadcasters must be held accountable for streaming smutty material into our homes,” said Lanier Swann, government relations director for one such group, Concerned Women for America, in a statement. “Their disregard for the well-being of our families is evident in their lack of discretion in what they choose to air. Maybe now that they’re going to have to shell out a few more dollars they’ll show a little more consideration and class.”

Before the bill becomes law, a compromise will have to be reached between Brownback’s bill and the House version, which, in addition to raising fines, seeks to penalize performers and contains provisions for revoking broadcast licenses. Brownback deliberately avoided those extra provisions, wanting a straight fine-raising bill, which he thought stood better chances of gaining enough congressional support.

At least one industry lobbyist thinks a compromise will be reached. “That’s my understanding,” the exec said.

“I urge the House to take action on increasing indecency fines so we can send a bill to the White House,” Brownback said in a statement. “It’s time that broadcast indecency fines represent a real economic penalty and not just a slap on the wrist.”

Frist is likely to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.

Separately on Friday, the FCC released the total number of indecency complaints it received in the first quarter of this year. The agency logged 141,868 complaints January through March, more than three times the number logged in fourth quarter of 2005, when 44,109 came in.

However, the vast majority of 2006 complaints came in during the month of February, which accounted for more than 138,500 complaints. January saw only 1,740, March 1,602. The February complaints involved an episode of NBC’s “Las Vegas” airing that month (Daily Variety, March 14), and the majority were generated by a social conservative group’s email campaign to members urging them to complain.

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