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Congress drops indecency fines, hate crimes, tobacco amend.

Updated Oct. 14

WASHINGTON (BP)–Congress has recessed until after the Nov. 2 election but not before shelving legislation that would have increased broadcast indecency fines, authorized the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products and expanded hate-crimes protections to homosexuals.

Each of the actions came in conference committee negotiations between members of the Senate and House of Representatives. The broadcast indecency and hate-crimes provisions were dropped from the Department of Defense authorization bill, while the tobacco language was removed from corporate tax legislation.

A Southern Baptist public policy specialist described the results as a “mixed bag.”

“The one bright spot was the removal of the hate-crimes language from the DOD bill,” said Barrett Duke, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s vice president for public policy.

The ERLC will continue to pursue passage of both the tobacco and broadcast decency proposals, Duke said.

When the Department of Defense conference committee deleted the broadcast indecency proposal, Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., quickly acted to revive it. He reintroduced the measure as a stand-alone bill the next day, Oct. 8, in hopes the Senate may take up it up when it returns after the election.

Congress is scheduled to resume its session Nov. 16. The House and Senate normally adjourn before an election, but this year they have yet to complete work on major pieces of legislation.

The indecency fines measure Brownback is pushing is one already passed by the House. The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, H.R. 3717, would increase the maximum fine to $500,000 for a single violation of decency standards by a radio or television station. The most the Federal Communications Commission can levy for a violation now is $27,500. The House bill also would call for the FCC to hold license revocation proceedings after three violations by a radio or TV station.

The House approved the decency bill in March in a 391-22 vote. The Senate passed a different version as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill in June. The vote was 99-1.

“The legislation would provide “crucial instruments in our efforts to curtail the indecent, vulgar material coming into people’s homes,” Duke said.

On hate crimes, the Senate acted to include “gender, sexual orientation or disability” among categories protected by hate-crimes laws by amending the Defense authorization bill in June. The amendment passed 65-33. The measure also would provide federal assistance to state and local officials to investigate and prosecute such crimes.

“Sexual orientation” is a classification that includes homosexuality. The categories currently protected from hate crimes are race, color, religion and national origin.

The House version of the authorization bill did not include the hate-crimes language. The House had voted 213-186 in September to instruct its conferees to support the language, but its action was non-binding.

Opponents of expanding the hate-crimes protections charged the bill with seeking to punish thoughts rather than actions.

“It was inappropriate to single homosexuals out as a protected class,” Duke said. “There are already laws in place to prosecute people for violent behavior toward others, regardless of the victim’s sexual orientation. These laws are appropriate and sufficient.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy, the lead Democratic cosponsor of the hate-crimes measure, criticized the House Republican leadership and the White House for calling for removal of the language. The senior Massachusetts senator promised in a written statement it was “not the end of our battle. We will be back again and again, and we will continue to bring this legislation up every opportunity we can until it is signed into law.”

On the issue of tobacco, the Senate approved in July an amendment that would have given the FDA for the first time regulatory authority over the manufacturing, marketing, labeling, distribution and sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products. The agency also would have been empowered to restrict tobacco advertising that targets children. In addition, the FDA would have been able to require changes in tobacco products to make them less addictive or toxic.

The House version of the corporate tax bill did not provide for FDA oversight of tobacco, and its conferees prevailed in negotiations over the proposal. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, the House conferees voted 8-3 against FDA oversight of tobacco, while the Senate conferees favored such authority 15-8.

The measure maintained, however, a $10 billion buyout of tobacco farmers.

“It was very disappointing to see the tobacco buyout provisions retained in the bill while the FDA regulation language was omitted,” Duke said. “Millions of people are adversely affected by tobacco. There is no question that tobacco delivers an addictive substance and that any use of tobacco has dangerous, even deadly, consequences.”

William Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, said in a written release the conference committee decision was a “big victory for the tobacco industry that will carry a heavy price in loves lost and kids addicted to tobacco. Unfortunately, this life-saving measure is being thwarted by a small minority of House leaders and tobacco-state lawmakers.”

The ERLC urged House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R.-Texas, in an August letter to work for approval of the amendment.

The ERLC is part of a coalition of about 50 public health and religious organizations supporting FDA authority over tobacco. In addition to the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, other coalition members include the American Cancer Society, American Medical Association, National Education Association and Presbyterian Church (USA).

Congress gave final passage to the corporate tax bill, without the tobacco provisions, but it has yet to act on the Defense authorization bill.