WASHINGTON — Mr. Speaker, please step aside.
That was the underlying message of a letter sent by a bipartisan group of 205 House members to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) Wednesday. The lawmakers wants Hastert to stop trying to save President Bush from a politically damaging veto and schedule a vote on a popular bill that would retighten restrictions on media consolidation.
A half-month ago, the Senate passed legislation revoking the Federal Communications Commission’s controversial new media ownership regs, passed June 2. A major goal of the Big Four nets, the looser ownership rules would allow increased concentration of media ownership in broadcasting and permit cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations in most communities across the country.
The controversial decision provoked a public backlash, organized at least in part by grassroots groups spanning the political spectrum from MoveOn.org to the National Rifle Assn. More than 2 million people have registered their opposition to the rules with the FCC.
Restoring status quo
Congress responded to the outcry by passing a number of different bills aimed at overturning part or all of the rules, and a Philadelphia court issued a stay on the regs to allow more time for review. As soon as the rollback effort began on Capitol Hill, Bush started his own saber-rattling campaign, threatening to veto any effort to overturn the media regs.
Right now, the 205 lawmakers, including 11 Republicans, are determined to repeal the FCC’s decision and believe the speaker is the main obstacle in their way.
“We believe if Hastert schedules a vote on the bill, it will pass,” said Kevin O’Connell, spokesman for Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who is spearheading the rollback effort in the House.
“There is perhaps no other issue as central to the health of our democracy than the just governance of the media system,” the lawmakers wrote Hastert. “It is the foundation for informed citizenship and political decision-making. It is critical to maintain a diverse, local and competitive body of media sources.”
Hastert’s office did not return calls seeking comment Thursday, but in the past his aides have said their boss has no plans to move the bill.
Hinchey and several like-minded colleagues have already begun to discuss the prospect of launching a discharge petition that could force the bill onto the House schedule if 218 lawmakers sign the petition.
O’Connell could not say whether the 205 lawmakers who signed the Hastert letter would agree to sign a discharge petition as well, but he said the bill’s supporters would work overtime to make that happen.
Another effort to nullify part of the new rules also faces uncertain odds as Congress struggles to wrap up its work by Nov. 21 and adjourn for the year.
Scaling back reach
The House and the Senate attached language to spending bills that would return the cap on the percentage of TV households one company can reach from the new 45% to the previous 35%.
Republican leaders in both chambers are also determined to jettison that language so Bush won’t be forced to veto a critical spending bill.
The language restoring the 35% cap is embedded in the Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill. Senators expect intense debate over the media ownership issue if it comes to the floor separately.
But with time running out in the legislative session, GOP leaders are threatening to fold the bill into an omnibus spending package, a move that would make it easier to strip out the media ownership issue. House Republican leaders including Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have vowed to do just that.