House Subcommittee Aims for Bipartisan Spectrum Bill

With budget looming, consensus may be elusive

WASHINGTON—The spirit of bipartisanship isn't generally thriving on Capitol Hill these days, but it was alive and well Friday during the House’s fifth hearing on how best to reallocate more spectrum to mobile. That may not be enough, however, to produce a bipartisan bill by the end of next week when the budget and deficit debate will come to a head.

“The competing discussion drafts are a welcome addition to this process,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications & Technology, which held the hearing. “Despite the differences on paper, the reality is we are not as far apart as it might seem.”

“The debt talks do have an impact here. [Spectrum auctions] can be a revenue raiser to offset our deficit, and we have a responsibility to follow through,” said Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb. He and his fellow Republicans are resisting a Democratic proposal to give away for public safety use a portion of spectrum known as the D Block.

In his budget presentation earlier this week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R- Va., put proceeds from a spectrum auction at $20 billion-$25 billion, with the D Block representing $3 billion of that.

“I’m optimistic that we can still produce a bipartisan bill,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who positioned the Democratic draft bill she and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wrote as part of an effort to smooth the way for a bipartisan bill.

Talk of bipartisanship aside, the two sides seem no closer on how to handle the D Block. A consensus would need to be reached before final mark-up, which is expected to happen next week, probably on Thursday. And with a GOP-controlled House, the likelihood of the Democratic bills getting much traction is low.

Giving the D Block to public safety became the Democratic position in February, when President Obama suggested the idea. Since then, Democrats have fallen in line behind the proposal, which was first put into a bill by Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

“But for the president’s call in February to allocate the D block, we’d be much further along today. After all, about a year ago then Chairman Waxman eloquently and forcefully argued that his discussion draft that auctioned the D block was the right public policy,” said Walden. Both the FCC's National Broadband Plan and the 9-11 Commission also supported an auction.

Broadcasters are optimistic, but clearly nervous that in the short time left, they could lose out on protections that would ensure that those broadcasters that don't give up spectrum would keep the same signal contour. "While participation in an auction is voluntary, the subsequent repacking of broadcast stations to new channels following an auction is not voluntary," said former Sen. Gordon Smith, now president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, who testified. Right now, the bills call for the FCC to make "reasonable efforts" to preserve signals.

Leaving nothing to chance, broadcasters have taken their lobbying efforts beyond the committees to the House leadership involved in the budget debate.