Brownback scales back culture committee proposal

Thursday, September 23, 1999

Sen. Sam Brownb...
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., center, talks with Christian Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate during 'Next Steps Towards Cultural Renewal' symposium on Capitol Hill in April. Brownback's legislative assistant, Cherie Harder, is at right.

A senator who is leading efforts to make the entertainment industry accountable for violence in movies, books, music and video games has agreed to narrow the scope of a proposed Senate culture committee in response to criticism that the body would wield undue power and duplicate the work of other committees.

Earlier this month, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., introduced a resolution creating the Special Committee on American Culture to study the “causes and reasons for social and cultural regression” and “explore means of cultural renewal.”

Under the proposal, the special committee would have power to subpoena witnesses and secure depositions but wouldn't directly handle legislation. The seven-member body would work until Dec. 31, 2000.

Because the Senate Rules and Administration Committee's failure to act on the measure yesterday and this morning, however, Brownback has agreed to downgrade his proposed committee to a task force without subpoena power that will finish its work by July 2000.

“These are all tentative discussion that are still ongoing,” said Eric Hotmire, Brownback's press secretary, this morning. “But it looks like it may happen next week.”

The proposed culture committee marks one of several efforts to address youth violence undertaken at the federal level since April, when two students killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

In June, President Clinton directed the Federal Trade Commission to study the entertainment industry's marketing trends and to consider the effectiveness of content ratings. In August, the Senate Judiciary Committee released a report that concluded that “exceedingly violent” images are prevalent in entertainment media and that such content leads to real-world violence.

Sen. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., sponsored legislation — voted down in the House in June — that would forbid the sale of violent music, video games and movies to minors. More recently, Sen. Joe Lieberman, along with Brownback and Sen. John McCain, introduced the Media Violence Labeling Act of 1999, which, if passed, would order the entertainment industry to create a universal rating system.

As for Brownback's committee proposal, the Senate Rules Committee twice — yesterday and this morning — declined to vote on the measure.

Although committee members didn't vote, several Democrats described the proposal as redundant and an unfair effort to target First Amendment-protected speech. A few Republicans said they didn't want to create a new committee.

Hotmire said the committee didn't act on the resolution because the minimum nine members weren't present to vote. But he said Brownback, in the meantime, has agreed to recast the committee as the Task Force on the State of American Society.

Hotmire said that other tentative changes might include removing the committee's subpoena power, balancing its membership among Democrats and Republicans and reworking its mission.

The new task force, if approved, would not only examine the entertainment industry but would also consider how culture affects family issues such as teen pregnancy, divorce, child welfare and educational standards, he said.

Judith Platt, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Publishers, described Brownback's effort as an affront to speech and a waste of time and resources.

“This should scare people, because it's the thought police,” Platt said. “If they really cared about kids, they would invest some serious resources in the kids themselves, such as job programs, drug-education programs, domestic programs and educational opportunities.”

Nina Crowley, executive director of the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition, agreed.

“I keep picturing Sen. Lieberman and Sen. Brownback in white wigs and black robes and being as effective and objective as the judges in the Salem witch trials,” Crowley said. “It's just a ploy, I believe, by Sen. Brownback to give himself a little more credibility, a little more power and a little more visibility.”

Although Lieberman, a key ally of Brownback, initially hesitated to co-sponsor the resolution, he now plans to enthusiastically endorse it.

“Sen. Brownback has gone to great lengths to address concerns about the resolution,” said Dan Gerstein, Lieberman's press secretary. “There were thoughts that it might have been overblown, but he has made a good-faith effort to dispel the notion that this is a witch hunt and an attempt to browbeat the entertainment industry.”

Although a task force may appear less ominous than a special committee, it doesn't make free-speech advocates any less uncomfortable, said Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

“We are very much afraid, because we feel a great deal of pressure from people who are trying to find a simple answer to a complex problem,” Finan said. “We very much fear that this committee or task force or whatever is going to stoke the fires under those who are already pressing for objectionable legislation.”