WASHINGTON — If the White House and the big four nets get their way, congressional efforts to roll back the Federal Communications Commission’s new media ownership rules will get lost in the end-of-the-year shuffle.
With President Bush’s poll numbers slipping, Republicans leaders in the House and Senate are hoping they can jettison all efforts to repeal the FCC’s looser rules allowing media companies to buy more stations — and in doing so save the White House from having to make good on a veto threat.
The FCC dramatically relaxed the media ownership regs in early June, sparking a backlash in the public and Congress. In the last two months, the House and Senate have passed several measures aimed at revoking some or all of the rules. Watching all the action on Capitol Hill, the White House has repeatedly threatened to veto any congressional effort to undo the FCC’s work.
A Philly appeals court has delayed implementation of the new rules so the courts and Congress can have time to review them. On Wednesday the same court denied a request by the nets to rehear their bid to move the locale to a sister court in D.C.
Attached to funding bill
But that has not stopped FCC critics in Congress who have pushed through an effort to restore the previous limit on the number of TV stations one company can own from the new 45% of the national audience reach to the original 35%. The House and Senate attached language doing so onto bills funding the FCC that are currently wending their way through Congress. The Senate last month also approved a “legislative veto” bill that would reject all of the new rules, restoring the 35% cap and rolling back a rule allowing one company to own newspapers and broadcasting stations in the same market — what is known as cross-ownership.
The veto bill is now waiting for House action, but Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is sitting on it with no plans to take it up and only about two months left in the session. If he refuses to bring up the bill, it will die on the vine. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the powerful Commerce committee, is trying to stall action on the FCC rollback by placing a hold on the spending bill containing the effort to restore the 35% cap.
With time running out in the legislative year, congressional sources say GOP leaders are planning to bundle all the remaining spending bills into a massive omnibus measure. If they do that, industry insiders believe House and Senate Republicans will strip the language restoring the 35% limit out of the bill in order to avoid any controversy and a politically damaging presidential veto.
‘Height of hypocrisy’
McCain has serious concerns about the new FCC rules but believes any rollback effort should not only restore the 35% limit (a major goal of the National Assn. of Broadcasters) but also revoke the new cross-ownership rules.
“It is the height of hypocrisy” to roll back the cap but allow the cross-ownership rule to remain, McCain said Thursday during a Commerce panel hearing on media ownership.
A bipartisan group of FCC critics in the House and Senate are disappointed by the stalling tactics but are trying to muster support and exert public pressure on GOP leaders to move the bills and finish the rollback efforts they began.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) expressed deep frustration over the political maneuvering taking place to keep the new rules intact. If the regs stay, he said Thursday, “This FCC will be seen as making the biggest mistake in dozens and dozens of years.”
House critics, led by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), are trying to rally support in that chamber to convince Hastert to move the “legislative veto” bill and are circulating a letter to him. In just three days the letter has attracted 100 signatures. Of those names, only three are Republicans.
Forcing Hastert’s hand
If Hastert refuses to budge, Hinchey said Thursday he is prepared to launch a discharge petition, which would force it onto the House calendar, but only if he can attract the support of 218 lawmakers. Reaching that number is an extremely difficult task, but Hinchey said there are plenty of lawmakers who care deeply about the issue.
Iowa Rep. Jim Leach, one of the few Republicans to sign the Hastert letter, said he would be prepared to support a discharge petition as well.
“I’m a strong believer in competition,” he said. “I think this is a major democracy issue.”