With a policy pirouette and a promise to compromise, Rep. Timothy R. Wirth (D.-Colo.) may have managed to head off an attempt by fellow legislators to bypass his subcommittee and introduce a bill to deregulate the television industry.
If Wirth succeeds, it would delay a vote on the measure, backed by the National Association of Broadcasters, for several months.
In a letter sent Thursday to Rep. John D. Dingell (D.-Mich), chairman of the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Wirth promised to abandon his attempts to make broadcasters pay a "spectrum fee" for the right to use the broadcast frequencies and effectively end his "bottleneck" of television deregulation debate in exchange for getting the proposed legislation back into his telecommunications subcommittee.
Dingell responded with a letter sent Friday to Wirth and all the committee members saying that the two factions should get together to see if their problems could be resolved through the subcommittee process. If that were possible, Dingell said, he expected to see deregulation legislation ready for full committee consideration by October.
"It's a very positive move," says Rep. Al Swift (D.-Wash), a co-sponsor of the deregulation effort along with Rep. Thomas Tauke (D. Iowa) and Rep. W.J. Tauzin (D.-La.). Swift expects the principals to meet on Monday to determine if, when and how the bill might end up back in Wirth's subcommittee.
The legislation, which was to be attached to an authorization bill pending before the full committee, would have sharply reduced the amount of regulatory demands on television station owners and made license renewals virtually automatic. In turn, the broadcasters would have had to guarantee at least a minimum of public affairs, local and news programming on their stations.
According to several committee sources, there were enough votes in the full committee to pass the bill.
Wirth's move is seen by several congressional staffers as a major concession prompted by clear signs that several subcommittee members are unhappy with his near total control of subcommittee activities. "This will be a victory of the process over autocracy," according to one Hill staffer, "It was because of the effort to attach the bill to the authorization that the issue was forced."