Monday, November 14, 2005

The federal government wants to pay for some U.S. residents to be able to watch television — the only question is how much.

The Senate’s budget bill, which passed last week, contains a $3 billion subsidy for owners of televisions that are not ready to handle the eventual transition to digital television.

The House budget bill, which ran into trouble Thursday but which will be on the floor this week, contains slightly less than $1 billion.

Both bills set a date when broadcasters must return their current licenses and instead broadcast a digital signal on a different part of the electronic spectrum.

The subsidy would go to pay for converter boxes, which would take the digital signal from the broadcasters and convert it so that it can be displayed by analog TVs. Televisions hooked up to cable or satellite would not need the converters, nor would televisions capable of receiving a digital signal.

“There are enough low-income Americans that would have difficulty coming up with the $40 or the $50 for a conversion box, so we want to help them out on a one-time basis,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe L. Barton, Texas Republican, who is pushing for finishing the transfer to digital broadcasting.

“Since it’s a federal law that we’re saying you have to broadcast digitally, and we have lots of TV sets in this country that are still good that aren’t digitally capable, I think it’s reasonable to have a modest subsidy on a one-time basis,” he said.

Some say the government shouldn’t be paying at all.

“What the taxpayers are being asked to suffer is a transfer of money from their pocket basically to the living rooms of the television-watching public,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.

He offered an amendment to strike the entire $3 billion from the Senate bill, but it failed by voice vote.

Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, had an amendment to reduce the spending from $3 billion to $1 billion but withdrew it rather than force a vote. Under budget rules the $2 billion could have been reallocated to other spending and wouldn’t have saved anything, he said.

Senate backers also didn’t want to lose a vote and have the Senate on record supporting the higher spending, and they are convinced the House will not allow the $3 billion price tag.

But the House and Senate aren’t even operating from the same set of numbers.

The Senate bill uses the National Association of Broadcasters’ estimate that there are 73 million sets that cannot operate without a converter chip or box, while the House bill relies on Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2009 there will be a need for 20 million converter boxes.

The House bill also limits expenses by offering up to two vouchers per family, though the bill does not limit them to low-income families. Both bills propose to subsidize $40 of the cost of the boxes, which officials believe would run about $50.

Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said during the debate that the $3 billion figure is a limit, not a target.

Both bills also calculate billions of dollars of new revenue from selling off licenses for parts of the spectrum, with some of that money going to help emergency-services departments buy interoperable communications equipment.

The outside groups are lining up on the subsidy issue.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union joined together in a letter urging a broader program than the House version.

“Consumers paid good money for their TVs with the reasonable expectation that they would receive broadcast signals over their useful electronic life,” the groups wrote.

They also said it’s not an argument over a right to watch TV and said the payment does not constitute a subsidy to consumers.

“Congress isn’t giving them anything,” they wrote. “It merely holds them harmless from a government mandate that would otherwise make their perfectly good personal property virtually useless.”

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