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Congress overrides veto of cable bill

Congress overrode a President Bush veto for the first time Monday, passing by comfortable margins a bill aimed at holding down the price of cable TV.

Thirty-five times over the past four years Bush has vetoed legislation. Not until the eve of the election did both houses muster the two-thirds majorities needed to pass a law with _ as the presiding officer of the Senate announced and the speaker of the House repeated three hours later _ "the objections of the President of the United States to the contrary notwithstanding."

The margins verged on the embarrassing. Despite an all-out effort by White House lobbyists, the override vote in the Senate was the same as for the original bill, 74 to 25.

In the House the victory margin of 308 to 114 was 42- votes higher. Some members cheered.

"This is an attempt to embarrass the president 30 days before the election," Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said, in his last bid to Senate Republicans. "That's what this is all about.

"Sustain the president's veto _ he hadn't asked for much," Dole implored.

Supporters insisted the legislation was non-partisan, saying that in the Senate a majority of each party favored passage.

But some Democrats were privately delighted by the result. Not only did they break the Bush winning streak, but they did it against a veto that appeared to demonstrate the patrician president's supposed lack of empathy for the irritations of everyday life.

Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., left the Clinton-Gore bus caravan in Florida to fly north for the vote. He walked briskly on and off the floor without speaking. But on the campaign trail Gore lashed Bush for "standing square with the big cable operators, the monopolies that have been raising rates and squeezing out competition."

Some advisers reportedly urged the president to let the bill quietly become law.

"He's sticking to it largely because he's afraid of being portrayed here as wishy-washy when he's trying to portray Clinton that way," said Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution.

Members of Congress had campaigns of their own to think about.

"It is an election year," said Richard Neal, D-Mass. "Let's send the consumers a signal that we've heard their message."

In the Senate, nearly every member who spoke against the bill conceded the cable industry's reputation for dubious service and frequent rate hikes.

"The urge to do something is . . . undeniable," Dole said.

In fact, so great was the momentum for rate regulation that cable critics were emboldened to expand the measure. Arguing that the best long-term assurance of fair prices is competition, the bill's authors included requirements that cable programers sell their shows to its rivals, such as the budding direct-broadcast satellite industry.

"It will give birth to the small dish," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

The bill also gives broadcast stations the right to negotiate a fee from cable systems that now pick off their signal without paying.

Bush argued that such provisions made the bill "fallen prey to special interests." He repeated the cable industry's claim that whatever the bill costs the cable industry will be passed along to consumers.

"Cable television rates will go up, not down," Bush said.

Probably so, sponsors acknowledged _ but more slowly than they have been.

Since Congress freed cable of all rate regulation in 1986, cable rates rose three times faster than inflation, the U.S. General Accounting Office says. The average monthly bill for basic cable, the lowest level of service, climbed by 60 percent.

The new law authorizes local governments to regulates rates for basic cable according to guidelines set by the Federal Communications Commission. Basic cable is defined as local over-the-air stations such as affiliates of ABC, CBS and Fox, as well as any government channels.

The FCC also will formulate guidelines for the more expensive "tiers" of service where such popular channels as CNN and MTV are usually found.

"Pay" channels such as HBO will not be affected.

But because busy signals at cable offices remain a problem in some areas, the commission will also set minimum standards for customer service.

"To make them answer their telephone!" cried Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan. "If I have ever seen an example of public-be-damned, that is it."

The cable industry spent millions on television commercials aimed at mobilizing public opinion against the bill, on top of $871,000 in congressional campaign contributions (twice as much as broadcasters spent).

Sen. Tim Wirth, the Colorado Democrat who single-handedly killed a less ambitious bill two years ago, was one of only seven Democrats against the bill. Still loyal to one of his state's larger industries, Wirth even predicted how much rates would rise: "Two to six bucks a month if this bill becomes law."

Democrat Bob Graham, who voted to override the veto, was the only Florida Senator voting. Because he has a brother in the cable industry, Republican Connie Mack voted "present."