WASHINGTON — The FCC’s massive media rules rewrite will face its first test today when all five Commissioners appear before the Senate Commerce Committee to answer for their actions.
Even though the Senate panel has held five hearings on the proposed changes this year, today’s hearing is the first time Congress will have the opportunity to publicly grill the three GOP commissioners directly about their party-line decision to make it easier for media behemoths to grow even bigger. (Republican Chairman Michael Powell and GOP colleagues Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin voted for the rules, while Democratic Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps voted against.)
The hearing will also give clues about the level of Congress’ resolve to undo the rules overhaul the agency voted to accept Monday.
The Republican commissioners will face intense scrutiny. Fifteen of the senators on the Commerce panel had signed a letter asking Powell to delay the vote and make the proceedings more open to the public — a prospect he rejected.
Just minutes after the new regs became official Monday, Sens. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) denounced the decision.
The lawmakers said they believed they had the votes to overturn at least some of the FCC’s changes. Hollings and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) have already co-sponsored a bill that would return the cap on the amount of national audience one company can reach to 35%. (The FCC increased the cap to 45% Monday.)
“(Dorgan) is very determined, and he’s not letting the grass grow under his feet on this,” spokesman Barry Piatt said Tuesday.
The issue has already attracted the attention of a number of Democratic presidential candidates. Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) pledged to introduce a “resolution of disapproval” once the rules are entered into the Federal Register and become official, a process that could take weeks. Sens. John Edwards (N.C.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean a week ago joined the chorus of critics imploring Powell to put off the final decision for one month.
But Powell has powerful allies in the House, who argue that the Supreme Court will not accept any Congressional meddling in the decisions of an independent agency such as the FCC.
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) predicted Tuesday that any Congressional effort to unravel the new regs would fail.
“Congress doesn’t have the right to veto the work of an agency,” he said, noting that the Supreme Court has struck down previous attempts by one chamber to reject an agency decision.
Kerry is relying on the Congressional Review Act to overturn the law, the same legislative mechanism the Bush administration used to repeal ergonomics rules established in the closing days of the Clinton administration that protected workers against repetitive stress injuries.
But using that act to gut the FCC rules could prove difficult because it requires that a bill pass the House and Senate and obtain the president’s signature within 60 days of the FCC’s new rules showing up in the Federal Register. Tauzin would certainly do everything he could to block such a measure in the House.
Even if Senate critics are successful, Tauzin said it would just create a vicious cycle. The FCC contends that the courts forced it down the path to deregulation because, among other things, the 35% cap was too arbitrary and did not reflect the proliferation of cable outlets and the Internet in the modern media landscape.
In fact, Tauzin said he’s not sure if the courts will look favorably on the new 45% limit, either.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Commerce panel, has tried to remain as neutral as possible on the media ownership issue. He has told colleagues that he would not sign onto a bill to overturn the FCC’s actions, but would not actively block it either.
McCain has placed the issue of the FCC’s funding on today’s hearing agenda, which could bring some private threats to the surface.
Stevens, an opponent of raising the 35% cap, is the chairman of the powerful Appropriations panel. Senators have suggested that Stevens could add language to an important spending bill or work to cut the agency’s funding in an effort to undermine the new rules.
“We have problems with Appropriations riders coming from the Senate all the time,” Tauzin said. “We’ll deal with it when it comes.”