Conflict and Compromise Await New Congress in Telecom, Media, Tech

A new era of American history begins when the 116th Congress convenes in January 2019 with one of the most partisan classes in modern history. Depending on which side of the aisle they sit, the members’ mission will be either to balance the ship of state or continue full steam ahead.

Conventional wisdom suggests there will be conflict. Optimists hope there will be compromise. The reality will be somewhere in between as the new Congress will have the opportunity to forge a unified path on things that matter to all Americans. With so many pressing policy issues facing the republic – immigration, healthcare, homeland security, and more – it is a stretch to think telecom, media, and technology (TMT) issues will top the agenda or lead the day.

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The DISCLOSE Act Creeps Along

Sometime before the end of the world (which is to say any day now) it’s going to occur to our congressional leaders that the United States is facing some actual problems that might usefully be addressed.  In the meantime, though, the expectation is that they’ll just keep lobbing into the hopper things like the DISCLOSE Act.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, the legislation is formally titled the “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections” Act.  And right there you have a measure of the collective wit of the bill’s sponsors.

Having cleared the House last month, the legislation is now in the Senate where its fate is unclear.  There’s talk of a Republican filibuster and of Democratic weariness.  But never mind the horse race aspects; we can trust our political reporters to handle that.  Of much greater importance are the myriad things that are wrong with the bill, divisible in parts between those that are just routinely outrageous, and those that are uncommonly so.

Among the former are the carve-outs exempting special interest groups like AARP and the NRA, and the transparently political rush to pass the legislation before the fall elections.  But the worst aspects of the bill are those that are also the most constitutionally infirm.

The bans on direct expenditures by government contractors and TARP recipients (with no similar limitations put on unions), and the speech-chilling threat of harassment inherent in some of the disclaimer and disclosure obligations, are sure to be challenged in court if the DISCLOSE Act is passed and signed into law.

It’s rarely a prudent thing to predict the outcome of any matter before the Supreme Court.  But considering what appears to be the support there for the notion that the speech at issue enjoys constitutional protection, it’s hard to see the Court upholding a bill that, for instance, restricts the First Amendment rights of organizations just because they happen to be government contractors.

In the main, The Media Institute’s opposition to McCain-Feingold has focused more on that legislation’s impact on “issue ads” rather than direct political contributions.  But given the mischief, not only inherent in but positively intended by the bill’s sponsors, the hope here is that, whether by filibuster or force majeure, the DISCLOSE Act will be put to rest in the Senate.

As they say in the ad, “Just Do It.”