WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators dead set on overturning the Federal Communications Commission’s new media ownership rules moved one step closer to that goal Tuesday.
With broad Senate support, the solons launched an effort to invoke a rarely used legislative veto in an attempt to gut the recent FCC regs that make it easier for big media companies to grow even bigger.
“I think there’s going to be a fairly substantial amount of support to overturn this rule and say to the FCC, ‘Start over and get it right,’ ” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) told reporters.
If successful, the veto would force the FCC back to the drawing board and roll back new rules allowing companies to own more stations as well as television and radio outlets and a newspaper in the same market.
Last month, the Senate commerce panel voted to overturn major components of the new FCC rules. In recent days, Dorgan took steps to assure it would make it to the Senate floor for a vote. At least 30 senators must sign a petition to force a full Senate vote; Dorgan found 35 willing to do so (including six Republicans) and secured a commitment from Senate commerce panel chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) to move the bill, possibly some time in the next three weeks.
While the resolution has attracted strong support in the Senate, right now it faces major hurdles in the House, where key GOP leaders have vowed to block it.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) reiterated his goal of overturning the regs and said the issue of media concentration is not partisan, although he could not convince the top House GOP leaders, including majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Commerce Committee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), to join the effort.
“I think the FCC, in this case, made a decision that will lead to more concentration, less diversity and fewer choices in the opportunity for people to view or hear or read” other news and opinions, Lott said.
A determined Dorgan hopes the Senate’s actions will eventually pressure House Republicans to stand down and allow a vote on their side of the Capitol.
“There’s no requirement that would force the House to act,” Dorgan said. “If the Senate disapproves these rules by a vote of the full Senate, I think it’s going to put a substantial amount of pressure on the U.S. House” to allow a vote.
But so far, House leaders aren’t budging. “The speaker (of the House) is going to support the FCC and the administration on this thing,” maintained John Feehery, spokesman for House speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)
“Clearly, DeLay supports the FCC’s decision,” added DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy.
But House GOP leaders face a more immediate concern. Rep. David Obey (D-Ohio), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations panel, will offer an amendment to the FCC spending bill today that would seriously hamper the FCC’s ability to implement the new rules.
On June 2, the FCC lifted the cap on the percentage of TV households one company could reach from 35% to 45%. The rule would allow the big four nets to gobble up more stations and has stirred up controversy. Obey’s amendment would deny the agency any funding to implement the new 45% cap.
The Obey amendment appears to have enough lawmakers’ support to rattle the nets. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and Telemundo spent the early part of this week furiously lobbying against the Obey amendment, and today some 75 general managers from network-owned stations across the country will descend on Capitol Hill to try to convince lawmakers to oppose it.
Tauzin is also working feverishly against the Obey amendment.
“We’re circling the wagons right now,” Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said. “We have a real dogfight on our hands.”
The National Assn. of Broadcasters also got into the act Tuesday. For months, the NAB tried to convince the FCC to keep the cap at 35%. In an about-face last week, the NAB decided opposition to the new FCC regs has become so strong in recent weeks that it had opened a Pandora’s box of additional regulation they argue would do “irreparable” harm to broadcasters.
The NAB decided to reverse course and oppose any and all efforts to roll back the deregulation decision, and it reminded congressional appropriators about that decision in a letter urging them to oppose any effort to “rescind or stymie” the FCC’s media ownership rules.
“While the NAB does believe that 35% is the appropriate level for the national television audience reach cap, we have concerns that any ownership amendments would open the window for a whole host of antibroadcast proposals,” NAB officials wrote.