Digital TV bill gets panel OK

Plan calls for cutting off analog signals by 2008

House Commerce Committee Republicans passed their version of a major digital television transition bill Wednesday, successfully fending off Democratic attempts to increase the bill’s federal subsidy and delay the hard date for cutting off analog broadcast signals.

During the debate that preceded the 33-17 vote, which broke primarily along party lines, partisan politics played out in what often seemed like a hall of mirrors: Democrats hurled accusations of unfair taxes and government abuse of private property at Republicans, who countered with arguments in favor of affirmative action.

The bill calls for cutting off analog signals by Dec. 31, 2008, and also lays out the overall framework for the transition. Among its key provisions is a federal subsidy of about $830 million for low-to-moderate income households that still depend on over-the-air broadcast signals for their analog TV sets. Without a digital-to-analog converter system, such sets will go dark after the cutoff.

Led by Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Democrats argued that more money is needed to ensure that all vulnerable households will be provided with a converter system, most likely a set-top box expected to cost around $60.

Relying on numbers from the General Accounting Office, Dingell and Markey said analog sets in as many as 20 million households may go dark. The GOP subsidy will cover 10.3 million households. The Democrats’ proposal could cost $4 billion, an amount they said was reasonable given that the auction of the analog spectrum, after it is returned to the government, will bring in at least $10 billion, possibly as much as $28 billion.

Dingell and other Democrats also pressed for pushing back the cutoff to April 2009, “a more practical date,” Dingell said, because it would allow more time to inform the public about the coming transition.

Republicans countered that the Democrats’ plans were too expensive. “They want to raise money in the auction only to spend it,” said committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), who relied on lower numbers from the Congressional Budget Office to argue that Dingell and Markey were overestimating the number of vulnerable households.

The committee was considering the bill as part of Congress’ overall budget reconciliation package, which the Republican majority wants to apply toward reducing the federal deficit.

Except for two major differences, the House bill largely parallels the Senate version, which passed last week. The Senate called for a cutoff date of April 2009 and allotted $3 billion for the subsidy.