WASHINGTON -- Feeling, evidently, flush with (other people's) cash, the Senate has concocted a novel way to spend $3 billion: Create a new entitlement. The Senate has passed -- and so has the House, with differences -- an entitlement to digital television.
If this filigree on the welfare state becomes law, everyone who owns old analog television sets -- everyone from your Aunt Emma in her wee apartment to the millionaire in the neighborhood McMansion who has such sets in the maid's room and the guest house -- will get subsidies to pay for making those sets capable of receiving digital signals.
If you think America is suffering an entitlement glut, you may have just hurled the newspaper across the room. Pick it up and read on, because this story illustrates the timeless truth that no matter how deeply you distrust the government's judgment, you are too trusting. Here, as explained by James L. Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation, is the crisis du jour: The nation is making a slow transition from analog to digital television broadcasting.
Why is this a crisis? Because, although programming currently is broadcast in both modes, by April 2009 broadcasters must end analog transmissions and the government will have auctioned the analog frequencies for various telecommunications purposes. For the vast majority of Americans, April 2009 will mean ... absolutely nothing. Nationwide, 85 percent of all television households (and 63 percent of households below the poverty line) already have cable or satellite service.
What will become of households that do not? Leaving aside such eccentric alternative pastimes as conversation and reading, the digitally deprived could pursue happiness by buying a new television set, all of which will be digital-capable by March 2007. Today a digital-capable set with a flat-screen display can be purchased from -- liberals, please pardon the mention of your Great Satan -- Wal-Mart for less than $460. But compassionate conservatism has a government response to the crisis.