What's it worth to make sure nothing gets between Americans and their TV sets?
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) thinks $3 billion is about right. That's what he proposed yesterday to spend to make sure TVs don't go blank when broadcasters switch to digital signals in about four years.
The money would subsidize the cost of set-top boxes to convert digital signals to play on the old analog sets that millions of people without cable or satellite TV rely on. Under Stevens's proposal, people would make a $10 co-payment for the boxes and the government would absorb the rest of the cost. The cash would come from an estimated $10 billion to be raised from auctioning the spectrum when analog broadcasts end.
The idea, outlined in a Stevens speech and in a staff draft circulated among Senate Commerce Committee members, was criticized by fellow conservatives. It could trigger a battle at a Commerce Committee markup of the draft bill today as well as with House Republicans who aim to limit any subsidy to $1 billion.
"I don't think we need that much money for a program to deal with the limited number of consumers that might require a converter box," said Sen. John E. Sununu (R.-N.H.), a member of Stevens's committee. "Given the competing issues like reconstruction in the Gulf states and national security needs, $3 billion for set-top boxes should not be a priority."
"It seems awfully high," said Rep. Lee Terry (R. Neb.), who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "It is not a constitutional right to own and watch a TV. . . . I can't envision that we'd go for a number that's triple what was our upper end."
Congress is debating setting a deadline to cut off the analog broadcasts that have brought Americans free, over-the-air TV signals for decades.
Stevens has proposed an April 7, 2009, deadline while Rep. Joe Barton (R.-Tex.), the House Commerce chairman, has backed Dec. 31, 2008.
Before the deadline, millions of Americans will have to buy either new digital TVs or the set-top converter boxes. Lawmakers are considering a subsidy in large part because of a fear of a political backlash if TV screens go blank.
In addition to the subsidy, the Senate staff draft set aside other funds expected to be raised by the auction: $1 billion to help first responders buy communications equipment, $250 million for a national alert system to warn of impending disasters, and $200 million to aid "coastal states affected by hurricanes and other coastal disasters."
Republican congressional aides criticized the last item, noting that it was worded so broadly that it could be spent on states like Alaska and Hawaii, home state of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, rather than in states like Louisiana and Mississippi that were hit by Hurricane Katrina.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz), a fiscal conservative who does not sit on the House Commerce Committee, said he did not think House Republicans could accept a $3 billion subsidy under any circumstances.
"What's next, $40 to upgrade people's iPod Mini to the Nano?" Flake said. "I think it will be laughed at over here given the budget constraints we're under."