On Monday, the full House of Representatives approved the PIRATE Act on a voice vote (no roll call). This comes just a week after its Energy and Commerce Committee endorsed the bill (also on a voice vote) with some amendments, and two months after the bill was initially introduced.
The amended bill ups the size of financial penalties for unlicensed broadcasting to $2 million, requires the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau to conduct an annual sweep of the top five radio markets where radio piracy is most prevalent (with follow-up “monitoring sweeps”), gives field agents the option to skip the initial warning-letter in cases where the broadcasts are ongoing, and requires the FCC to establish a database of both licensed and unlicensed radio stations. It also notes that no additional funding will flow to the FCC in order to undertake these new regulatory burdens.
Debate on the PIRATE Act was nearly non-existent. Bill sponsor Leonard Lance (R-NJ, $3,000 in campaign donations from the NAB this cycle, $97,875 from Communications/Electronics industries as a whole in 2018), claimed once again that pirate radio signals interfere with EAS messages (there is no concrete evidence that this has ever occurred) and with “Federal Aviation Administration operations,” though according to our own Enforcement Action Database, this has been alleged to have occurred a total of 12 times in the last 10 years, with just two of those cases happening in New Jersey, and none of them actually causing any loss of air traffic communications.
Lance also proclaimed that “Minority-owned broadcasters are disproportionally harmed by pirate radio operators in urban areas,” though there is absolutely no empirical evidence to support this. Radio is now also apparently part of what Lance calls the “information highway,” and he believes that pirates “needlessly clog” this “highway at important times.”
Cosponsor Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MA, $4,000 in campaign donations from the NAB this cycle, $88,317 from Communications/Electronics industries as a whole in 2018) provided a bipartisan sheen of consensus to the “debate” by eseentially repeating Lance’s unverified and overblown assertions.
Finally, Dingell was followed by fellow cosponsor Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL, $3,000 in campaign donations from the NAB this cycle, $71,750 from Communciations/Electronics industries as a whole in 2018), who claimed that there have been “instances in which emergency service communciations have been hindered because of illegal operators, including off the Gulf Coast of Florida,” without providing any concrete evidence of this assertion. Given that all known contemporary radio pirates in the United States broadcast from land, and have done so for the last ~30 years, it’s anyone’s guess from where Bilirakis pulled this whopper.
It’s interesting that no other Representatives have come forward to co-sponsor the bill, save for the 14 who initially signed onto it, though Rep. Lance did ask for (and receive) a five-day extension for other members to add remarks to the Congresional Record. It remains to be seen just who will introduce the PIRATE Act in the Senate for consideration, and whether or not it will be similarly fast-tracked there. The top recipient of NAB largesse this election-cycle for a sitting Senator that hails from a hot-spot state for unlicensed broadcasting is Bill Nelson (D-FL, $17,250), though the NAB has spread five-figure love around to the Senate party leadership and campaign committees as well.