The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee said Wednesday he is confident that House and Senate negotiators will include his version of spectrum legislation in a payroll tax package given that it would generate more cash to pay down the deficit than the Senate Commerce Committee's version.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., outlined an aggressive agenda for his panel for this year, including pushing for legislation to free up more spectrum for wireless broadband and to help build a national broadband public safety network.
Walden and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., are among the House conferees picked to help negotiate the differences between the House and Senate versions of legislation that would extend a payroll tax holiday and other tax breaks. The House's payroll tax bill, passed last month, included the spectrum legislation authored by Walden that was approved by his subcommittee in November.
The Senate Commerce Committee approved its own version of spectrum legislation last summer. Both the Walden and Commerce bills would authorize auctions to entice broadcasters to voluntarily give up some of their spectrum for a share of the money generated. Among the notable differences between Walden's measure and the Senate Commerce bill is that his would generate about $10 billion more for deficit reduction, Walden said.
Another provision that has emerged as a point of contention in recent weeks is language in the House bill that would bar the FCC from limiting which companies could participate in incentive auctions. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski earlier this month urged lawmakers not to limit the commission's flexibility to structure the auctions as it sees fit.
Following his speech, AT&T voiced concern that the FCC may try to keep it and other large wireless operators from bidding for the spectrum that broadcasters give up at auction. Walden said the language included in his bill would ensure the FCC can't pick winners and losers. He added that the commission would still have authority to address concerns over market concentration even after an auction is conducted.
"The only reason the chairman is upset about the provision is that he wants to exclude one of two market participants," Walden said, referring to the nation's two biggest wireless firms: AT&T and Verizon Wireless. "I don't think it's good public policy."
Walden said he believes it's likely that some version of the spectrum legislation will be included in the payroll tax package the House and Senate negotiators are trying to hammer out. The conference committee met for the first time Tuesday. "I would think given the need to pay for the various components of the [payroll] legislation...it would cause a problem if it dropped out," he said. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that Walden's spectrum legislation would generate $16.7 billion for deficit reduction compared with just $6.5 billion for the Senate bill, authored by Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Walden also said the full Energy and Commerce committee plans to mark up FCC reform legislation on Feb. 7. While praising Genachowski for making some progress in overhauling how the FCC conducts its business, Walden said changes promoting transparency need to be codified into law.
Democrats, however, have been critical of a provision that would limit the FCC's ability to demand conditions from merging companies in the name of the public interest. "All we're saying is that you can't use leverage on mergers...to achieve effects in the marketplace that you don't statutorily have the right to do," Walden said.