Pols push FCC reforms

Travel sponsorship among changes introduced

WASHINGTON — If Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has his way, Federal Communication Commission officials will no longer accept junkets on the corporate dime.

The ban on industry-sponsored travel is just one of several changes to the agency the Senate will likely initiate this week in response to complaints raised during the controversial media ownership proceedings. McCain and co-sponsor Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) introduced the changes as part of the FCC reauthorization bill Friday.

In the flurry of activity leading up to the June 2 vote to relax a wide array of rules governing media ownership, the Center for Public Integrity, a government watchdog group, released a detailed account of 2,500 trips FCC officials and staff made in the past eight years paid for by the industries the agency regulates.

McCain and Hollings, however, are not prohibiting FCC travel to such events and conferences as the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention held every year in Las Vegas. Instead, McCain said Congress will give the FCC “sufficient funds” to pay for their own travel costs to avoid any “appearance of impropriety.”

McCain and Hollings also agreed to lengthen the time between the FCC media ownership reviews from the current two-year standard to once every five years. During several Senate hearings, all five commissioners complained that the time period was too short.

Another major change would relieve FCC from any perception that Congress has forced it down the path to deregulation. During the final hearing on the controversial new regs, FCC topper Michael Powell argued that Congress and the courts have pushed a bias in favor of deregulation on the agency.

The Senate bill would clarify that standard to allow the FCC “to repeal, strengthen, limit or retain media ownership rules if it determines such changes are in the public interest,” according to McCain.

Bill would also bar senior FCC staffers who leave the agency from lobbying any government entity for one year. It would also make agency fines far more severe.

In fact, McCain and Hollings want to raise the cap on fines and forfeitures by a factor of ten, an attempt to crack down on communication companies who simply accept these penalties as a cost of doing business. They would also make fines currently levied on broadcasters and cablers apply to satcasters as well.

The Commerce committee, which McCain chairs, plans to pass the legislation Thursday; the bill will likely pass the full Senate without much resistance. A spokesman for the House Commerce Committee said chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) is considering several FCC reforms, but the panel will not tackle FCC reauthorization for months.

The fate of a separate bill aimed at overturning a major piece of the change in media ownership regs is far less certain. Sponsored by Sens. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the bill would return the percentage of the national TV audience one company can control to 35%. (The FCC raised it to 45%.)

The Hollings bill, as it is known, will likely pass out of committee Thursday as well, but few lawmakers are willing to predict if the full Senate will agree to undue months of FCC work. Tauzin (R-La.) has repeatedly congratulated the agency for its media ownership rewrite and will likely block any effort to move a bill to restore the old cap.

If the normal legislative path fails, most critics of the FCC’s decision are holding out hope that Stevens, the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman, will be angry enough to take a less orthodox approach. Stevens can add an amendment to the FCC spending bill that would bar the agency from using any funds to implement the 45% cap for one year.

So far, Stevens has been circumspect about his plans. When asked if he would consider using an appropriations rider late last week, he hedged. “I have a bill right now,” he said. “And when Billy Tauzin gets a look at it, he’s going to love it.”