WASHINGTON, DC -- Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens today addressed participants of the Federal Communications Bar Association’s Annual Meeting. Following is a transcript of his remarks:
I do thank you very much for the invitation and I thank Earl for making the arrangements for this. I’m here on sort of an ad hoc basis you might say, because we’re still getting going in this new Congress. Let me first start off be telling you that as Chairmen of the Commerce Committee, Senator Inouye and I have followed the procedure that we’ve followed on the Appropriations Committee, the Defense Subcommittee and we are Co-Chairmen of this Committee. That means that we check everything with him and he checks everything with me. And, Lisa Sutherland is our Chief of Staff. She works very closely with Dan’s people. We do not expect to have the kind of partisan rancor that’s occurred in the past on this Committee at times. I have served on the Commerce Committee, I think, longer than any Republican in history now. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to share this role with my friend from Hawaii.
One of the things that we’ve started and it is something I started years ago in the Commerce Committee, actually in the minority when Senator Magnuson was Chairman and that is these listening sessions. Some people don’t understand them, but, just briefly, let me tell you, I wanted to take on the problem of trying to solve some of our athletes’ problems in the Olympics. It happened that we had had some problems, really bad results, as far as our people being disqualified and very little opportunity to deal with them, because we, at that time, did not have a national Olympics committee. We dealt just strictly, straight out, with the individual groups dealing with the International Olympic Committee. And, Senator Glenn Bell of Maryland decided he would introduce a bill to solve that problem. He ran into a fight with the AAU and he was defeated. So the next Congress, Marlow Cook of Kentucky decided he would take it on and he ran into a fight with the NCAA and he was defeated. In the third Congress, my good friend and neighbor from the south, from Seattle, Chairman Magnuson, who used to call me, “son.” He said, “Son, someone has got to take this on and solve it and I want you to do it.” And, we were all in the minority, by the way, which just shows that times were different then. And I said, “Warren, I thought you liked me. The other two have already gone.” But, I said, “Ok, I’ll do it if you’ll let me do one thing – no hearings until we’re ready to have hearings.” He said, “Do whatever you want.” So we had listening session for about nine months and we met around the country, as a matter of fact. I took the staff of the Chairman and we went throughout the country and listened to people tell us of the problems they’ve had in the Olympics. And, we devised a bill made up of a consensus from those listening sessions. And, when we introduced it, we did have a hearing – one day. The bill went to the floor and passed the Senate without amendment. It went to the House and passed the House without amendment and it became law.
Now, I’m a firm believer that these hearings we hold only have merit once we know the questions to be asked and once we have a record that can be made, that’s a positive record that supports the goals that we agreed upon. So, these listening sessions have been very helpful to us so far. We’ve completed the listening sessions on the digital television transition. We’re going to put together now a bipartisan bill and both staff, minority and majority, will be working on that. It will be, I believe, quite similar to the House staff draft that has being circulated. We believe that we’ll probably put a hard date in the bill of 2009, we’re not sure of that yet. But, we’re working on options for some type of a program to solve the problem of set-top boxes for the analog sets that will still be in the hands of many people who cannot afford to replace them right away. I personally think that we ought to put our legislation that requires some sort of a warning on analog sets sold after a specific date. These analog sets have every kind of description on them possible to indicate that they are digital, but they are not. And, they’re all made outside of the United States. I think we’ve got to find some way to convince people not to sell analog to customers who think they’re getting digital sets. We hope that we can move up the date of when analog sets can no longer actually be sold in the interstate commerce in this country and the current deadline is June 1, 2007, for TV sets larger than 13 inches to include digital tuners. One of the great problems is to develop a program that funds the analog translators in rural areas so they can receive and transmit digital signals. This has not been really solved by us yet. I do think we will have some suggestions on that.
We also want to extend the authority for spectrum auctions, which currently expires in 2007. And, those auctions have a lot to do with our hard date, which I’m sure you know CBO scores us very little income for spectrum the closer the date is to now and increases as the date goes out into the future. Actually, Dan and I originated the spectrum sales. I think at times people forget about that. And I really think, at that time the CBO estimated that we’d get revenue of about $250 million from the sale of spectrum. And that first auction, you’ll all remember, was in the billions. We still believe there is going to be an increasing demand for this spectrum when we free it up and there is going to be a substantial return if we do it right.
These listening sessions really, I think, are going to produce a draft that is going to be acceptable, I believe, on a bipartisan basis within our Committee and I think there will be very little controversy concerning it, once we get to that point. These listening sessions we’ve had on other issues as well. We’ve heard about the cost of complying with the 50 different sets of regulations issued by state agencies. And we’ve got a cellular industry that’s trying to cope with the different standards for consumer bills to the Bells, which seek to enter video markets. There’s almost a universal concern about the costs and merits of state regulation or local regulation. This is a problem, really, in terms of 30,000 local franchises that would be necessary for each Bell to enter the video marketplace. That could be very costly and, really, ultimately, kill competition, but it’s also going to increase the price considerably to the consumer. To address the problem, companies like SBC have gone to state legislatures around the country to seek different rules, but 50 state legislatures are going to end up with 50 different standards just like the basic administrative agencies of the state. So, it appears to us now that we ought to think about some kind of a national solution and this also would apply to the font size on cell phone contracts and advertising. Uniform contract procedures are almost impossible under current circumstances. I am one who basically believes in states’ rights, but this is getting to the point now where we will have to find a way to deal with these issues that, I think, confront the industry. We are going to look at generally, the role of states across the board and when state regulation makes sense and when it becomes an unnecessary financial burden not only to the industry, but to consumers.
Our staffs have met with NARUC and its representatives recently to seek their response to some of the proposals that have been presented to us to preempt state law and to develop national standards that could be implemented at the local level, such as we did when we used to use joint boards.
We have a series of basic problems that we have to deal with in terms of the cable industry, from cable to broadcasters, from Bells to the competitive local exchange carriers, we are still seeking their ideas. And, some have been forthcoming with legislative suggestions. We’re still waiting for others to present specifics to us. And, we have, I’m delighted to see Chairman Martin and the members of the Commission here today. We have tried to work with them on a bipartisan basis, but after I suggested that to the Chairman, he reminded me of the Sunshine Law, which prohibits the Commission from meeting with Congress except two at a time. As a matter of fact, when they come to a hearing only two of them can be in the room at one time. So, they have to sort of change seats as their time to testify comes up. I do think that that is a real burden. As a matter of fact, as I told the Chairman, I don’t think the Commission could meet with the President together. That is not sunshine, that is stupidity as far as I’m concerned.
We want to find a way to modify these existing laws to promote cooperation and discussion between Congress and its Committees and the FCC. And, I think we can retain the basic goal of transparency in decision-making at the same time. But, my real message for you, and it’s why I’m pleased to come and give you a run-down of what we’re doing, is to solicit your advice also. As a matter of fact, if you want to put together a listening session for us with members of your organization, we’d be glad to do that. As practicing attorneys, you probably know more about many of the problems we’re trying to seek answers to than anyone else. We’d be happy to listen to you also and hope you will want to make some suggestions. Senator Inouye and I will listen to you and would like to have the suggestions. We’d like to have just as many suggestions as we can to make sure that when we finally get that bill that’s presented to the Committee and then to the Senate, we don’t face problems we don’t understand. We may not agree entirely, but at least we will have heard the problems that you wish to have discussed and tried to find out whether those are problems we ought to solve in this bill we’re working on now.
We’ll be working on a lot of other things before we’re through on the Commerce Committee. One of them is the problem of laws that have expired. Soon after I became Chairman the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce came to see me to tell me that I ought to become aware, as Chairman, of the number of laws that affected the jurisdiction of our Committee that have actually expired in the past and need at least review to determine whether they should be totally left off the law books of our country. We’re doing that now and we’re going to have a list of bills that we believe should be subject to renewal. The sunset concept is a good one as long as someone pays attention to when the sun goes down. We believe there ought to be a little sunrise around here, once in a while, too.