Indecency broadcast bill faces delay in Senate

The Senate Commerce Committee will not mark up a bill this week that raises the maximum fine for broadcasters of indecent TV content, dealing a blow to religious conservatives growing restive about a perceived lack of action on their key issues.

The indecency bill in question, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), would allow the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to charge TV networks up to $325,000 for a single indecency violation, far higher than the prevailing $32,500 maximum.

Evangelical conservative groups have made steeper penalties a high priority this year, pushing Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to act on a bill that could go to conference with a version that has already passed the House.

Brownback said yesterday that moving on his bill would calm a conservative base growing anxious as the midterm elections approach. “It will help, help on a topic that they’re concerned about — one that we can get done,” the senator said.

Yet the indecency bill was left off the schedule for tomorrow’s panel markup despite press reports and rumors that this could be the week for action. The House bill goes further than Brownback’s, empowering the FCC to yank the broadcast licenses of repeat offenders.

Stevens dismissed the suggestion that pressure from pro-family groups key to the GOP base, such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council (FRC), would spur quicker action by his panel.

“This has no party connections, as far as I’m concerned,” Stevens said, citing his desire to “keep it a clean bill,” without extra amendments that could be offered if the Senate touched on revocation of broadcast licenses.

Dan Isett, director of corporate and government affairs for the conservative Parents Television Council, said he continues to hope the Senate will act soon.

“There is no reason why the Senate should continue to ignore the voices of millions of Americans who are fed up with the entertainment industry that has blatantly disregarded decency law,” Isett said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose appearance at the evangelical Liberty University last week stoked speculation that he is actively courting the religious right, declined to comment on the path of Brownback’s indecency bill. McCain said he has been devoting his attention this week to immigration.

Brownback’s bill has seven Democratic co-sponsors, all from states President Bush carried in 2004. One possible reason for the Senate’s delay may be the quest by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to extend indecency fines to cable networks and penalize TV violence in addition to sexuality or profanity, which is sure to spark even more heated lobbying by the entertainment industry against the bill.

Underscoring conservatives’ eagerness for action, the FRC’s vice president of government affairs, Tom McClusky, posted on the group’s blog today a quote from Janet Jackson, the pop singer whose “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl energized TV indecency foes. McClusky called Jackson “Senator Stevens’s favorite performer” and urged the FRC’s grassroots activists to call the senator’s office.

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