Senators threatening a reg revival

WASHINGTON — It was a classic inside-the-Beltway blame game.

During a grueling three-and-a-half hour hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee last week, FCC chieftain Michael Powell faulted Congress, the courts, agency procedures — everyone but himself, for forcing the agency two days earlier to give media congloms more flexibility to gobble up small TV and radio stations and merge with newspapers across the country.

Maybe Powell wasn’t quite prepared for the storm of controversy a five-member regulatory agency could kick up by messing with people’s TV.

By the end of the hearing, he said he would have no problem if Congress came to the rescue and dealt with the controversial changes themselves.

There’s no shortage of senators queuing up to do just that.

Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) are pushing a bill to roll back the cap on the national TV audience one company can reach with owned and operated stations to 35%from the 45% the FCC raised it to last week.

Dorgan said the Commerce Committee would mark up that legislation this week. He said he would also try to add an amendment reinstating the ban on one company owning both a TV station and newspaper in the same market; the FCC lifted that ban in most parts of the county in its sweeping rule changes.

Most industry insiders believe Hollings and Co. will succeed in getting the legislation out of committee, but predict it will face tough terrain beyond.

Insiders doubt a repeal effort would fly in the House.

If straight legislation doesn’t work, senators have a number of other options to pursue, including amendments to spending bills and what Dorgan has called a “legislative veto” — a resolution of disapproval that would face hurdles because it would require House passage and the president’s signature.

In the coming weeks, attorneys representing both sides of the issue will prepare to unleash a rash of lawsuits. But they must wait until the rules are printed in the Federal Register to file them, a process that could take weeks.

Most likely, a number of different consumer and watchdog groups will combine their lawsuits and file with the District Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, one, if not all, of the Big Four networks could file their own suits, complaining that raising the cap to 45% did not go far enough.

If it’s not placed under a rushed timetable, the legal wrangling could drag into the fall or even next year. That might suit the Democratic presidential candidates just fine. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is just the latest to take up the issue; Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean already waded into the debate, calling on Powell to put off the decision and open the process to the public before the FCC vote was held.

With Enron fading from the public’s memory, Democrats would love to grab hold of a new corporate punching bag just as voters are beginning to pay attention to the election.

If the public outcry– from groups as diverse as the National Rifle Assn., the National Organization for Women and the Consumers Union as well as Hollywood producers and small-town TV stations — continues, Powell’s massive rules rewrite may be just the ticket for Dems to energize their liberal base before the 2004 primaries.