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Democrats, Republicans Join in Protest of New FCC Rules

Jun 9, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Angry lawmakers, including a clear majority of the Senate Commerce Committee, last week vowed to block a new set of Federal Communications Commission rules on media ownership that they said will give a handful of media industry conglomerates undue power over the nation’s entertainment and information businesses.
Sen. John McCain called all five FCC commissioners to a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last Wednesday. The next legislative shot will be taken June 19, when the committee plans a vote on legislation backed by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, that would set in concrete an FCC rule that used to bar broadcasters from owning TV stations reaching more than 35 percent of the nation’s TV homes. The FCC’s Republican majority raised the cap to 45 percent in a vote June 2.
At hearings before the Commerce Committee, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he plans to amend the legislation to overturn other parts of the FCC’s new media ownership rules.
However, it probably isn’t going to matter in the end. Veteran observers say the prospects for a legislative override are slim at best, particularly because the key congressional committee chairmen with jurisdiction over communications legislation-Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.-have made clear their opposition to an override.
“The new suite of rules recognize and reflect the explosive growth in the number and variety of media outlets in the market, as well as the significant efficiencies and public interest benefits that can be obtained from common ownership,” Rep. Tauzin said.
But a clear majority of the Senate Commerce Committee is upset about the FCC’s new rules. And the fact that the agency’s proposal to change its media ownership rules elicited more than 750,000 complaints from the public could add momentum to legislation-even though President Bush is expected to be sympathetic to his fellow Republicans at the FCC on the issue.
“It’s always a long shot but it’s not as long a shot as it might have been,” said Andrew Schwartzman, president of the activist Media Access Project.
Lawmakers also plan to try to ax the rules with a “resolution of disapproval,” a seldom-used parliamentary device that would effectively allow them to sidestep normal legislative procedures.
Congressional sources said the relevant provisions in the law permit sponsors of the resolutions to bring them directly to a Senate vote without the usual committee hearings as long as they have the support of 30 senators. Under the unusual provisions, which were included in the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996, the resolutions can’t be filibustered and aren’t subject to amendment.
Assuming the resolution is approved by the Senate, it can then be voted on immediately on the House floor, bypassing Rep. Tauzin’s House Energy and Commerce Committee altogether.
Assuming congressional approval, a major fly in the ointment is that the president has to sign the resolution into law before it becomes effective.
But as is the case with any legislation, Congress can always attempt to override a veto with a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate.
Despite Sen. McCain’s opposition to the override legislation, a clear majority of his colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee were sharply critical of the agency’s rules during committee hearings after the FCC’s vote.
Should other legislative initiatives fail, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., said he would try to derail the FCC’s deregulation with a rider on an appropriations bill, a plausible course of action because he is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Sen. Stevens is the committee’s chairman.
Sen. Dorgan and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., meanwhile, said they would use a resolution to overturn the agency’s rulings in an end-run around normal congressional lawmaking procedures.
Despite the vote, the rules won’t go into effect until 30 days or so after they are published in the Federal Register. The final regulations aren’t expected to be forwarded for publication until sometime this week.
That means that lawmakers will have a month or two to derail the regulations before any new deals are done.