GOP Sen. Ensign's Surprise Letter Could Undermine Stronger Decency Laws

Why is a conservative senator working to undermine decency legislation that he voted for and co-sponsored only months ago?

Sen. John Ensign (R.-Nev.) sent a letter to senior colleagues last Thursday requesting that Senate conferees remove all broadcast indecency provisions from the Department of Defense authorization bill (H.R. 4200). Ensign’s letter was sent on the same day conferees were first discussing plans to compromise on the issue, and could endanger the negotiations planned for this week. Ensign is an original co-sponsor and supporter of some the provisions increasing fines for broadcast indecency, although he does not agree with all of the provisions included in the current bill.

Conservatives on both the House and Senate side of Capitol Hill were extremely surprised that the conservative Ensign would go to such lengths to subvert their legislative efforts.

Ensign’s staff told Human Events Monday night that the senator actually does not want all of the broadcast provisions removed, even though he requested in his letter that all the broadcast provisions be removed. Ensign wrote: “I respectfully request that the entire issue of indecency and media ownership be dropped from consideration of the conference report on H.R. 4200.”

“He’s still willing, if we can get agreement on a fine increase, to support that, even though he doesn’t think that’s the place it should be,” said Ensign aide Michael Sullivan. “That’s a position Senator Ensign has held across the board, regardless of issue. That’s his underlying philosophy as a member of the Armed Services committee. He’s saying, we should be spending our time in this DoD conference worrying about the troops, homeland security, and winning the war against terror.”

Asked why Ensign voted to put the decency provisions in the defense bill in the first place, Sullivan replied, “Because he supports the provisions.”

The letter represents an extraordinary attempt to strip out the provisions, which will almost certainly not pass this year if they are not included in the defense bill.

Janet’s Law

Notably, Ensign’s letter does not mention a far more controversial and non-germane provision in HR 4200 which creates “hate crimes” laws that include “sexual orientation” as a newly protected category. The hate crimes provision, which passed the Senate this summer, would put some criminal defendants in greater jeopardy than others if they have, for example, voiced previously the view that homosexuality is morally wrong. Ensign also voted to put this provision in the defense bill.

The broadcast decency provisions in question, drafted in reaction to the baring of Janet Jackson’s breast at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, would increase fines already in place for airing indecent material. They would also make it easier for the FCC to begin proceedings against repeat offenders to revoke their broadcast licenses.

In his letter of September 30 to the chairman and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, Ensign writes that he wants all of the decency provisions removed from the bill–including the fine increase, which he and 98 other senators voted to add to this defense bill over the summer.

One conferee said that Ensign’s letter undercuts negotiators trying to preserve the increase in FCC fines that Ensign says he supports. House sources tell Human Events that last week, conferees agreed to discuss a compromise on the FCC issue that would probably increase the fines for indecent broadcasts but not include the stronger provisions for revoking broadcast licenses.

Ensign’s sudden reversal on the issue could threaten talks on such a compromise, expected this week, as well as the congressional effort to hold broadcasters more accountable for using the public airwaves to broadcast indecent material.

On the other hand, the provisions will almost certainly pass if they emerge from conference as part of the defense bill.

“It was all well and good to vote for fine increases when they didn??¢â???¬â???¢t think it would make it,” said one conservative Senate staffer. “Now [Ensign] doesn??¢â???¬â???¢t even want those. He must not have really wanted the fine increases in the beginning.”

No shrinking violet, Ensign endeared himself in 2002 to social conservatives when, as a freshman, he made a controversial maneuver on the floor–taking advantage of a colleague’s absence–that almost guaranteed an up-or-down vote to ban all human cloning during consideration of a terrorism reinsurance bill.

Ensign even made this bold conservative move in defiance of the Bush administration, which later worked vigorously to prevent the Senate vote.

Therefore, this surprise letter has GOPers scratching their heads, attempting to understand Ensign’s reasoning.