The 400-21 vote by the U.S. House of Representatives last week to approve appropriations legislation that would roll back the national TV station ownership cap to 35 percent has added so much momentum to the re-regulatory drive that veteran political insiders predict the White House will be forced to abandon its threat to veto the measure.
A presidential veto has been the most credible threat to the effort to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s controversial deregulation-and a way for President Bush to signal his support for a deregulatory move backed by the Big 4 TV networks and Michael Powell, the FCC’s Republican chairman.
But in the wake of last week’s vote, insiders said President Bush could find himself in the embarrassing position of being unable to find the congressional votes needed to block an override of the first veto of his tenure, assuming he follows the advice of top White House advisers to veto the legislation.
Even worse for the president, critics appear to have successfully painted the issue as one pitting the financial interests of the Big 4 TV networks against the public’s interest in blunting network media power. “I would be surprised if this would be the issue he would choose [for his administration’s first veto],” said Alan Frank, chairman of the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, the group leading the industry charge to roll the cap back to 35 percent.
Added Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., “He is smart enough not to do that.”
The White House and House Republican leaders have also threatened to try to strip the cap rollback out of the appropriations legislation when lawmakers from the House and Senate meet in a conference to work out the differences between their bills.
But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has already made clear his support for rollback initiatives and is expected to fight efforts to peel off the provision in conference, a behind-the-scenes process normally reserved for low-profile issues.
“This isn’t exactly low profile,” said Chris Murray, legislative counsel for the Consumers Union. “There’s so many people watching at this point that there’s no such thing as quietly stripping this out in conference.”
Added Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy, “The White House is not going to bat for the four networks.”
In a move that will strengthen the legislative case for re-regulation, the Senate Appropriations Committee is also expected to include a cap rollback provision in a funding bill when lawmakers return from their summer recess in September.
The key challenge for NASA, according to Mr. Frank, will be to ensure that the provision-and any other legislation moving through the Senate-is limited to the cap issue alone.
“Clearly, there’s a consensus in both houses [of Congress] to keep the cap at 35 percent,” Mr. Frank said. “We look forward to keeping the 35 percent cap legislation clean and focused on preserving localism.”
Despite Mr. Frank’s druthers, watchdog group representatives expect legislation that would extend the rollback to other FCC deregulation to come up for a vote after lawmakers return from their Labor Day break in September.
One of the bills, backed by Sen. Stevens, would roll back the national cap back from 45 percent to 35 percent, nullify an FCC decision relaxing a rule that barred broadcasters from buying daily newspapers in their markets and require major radio companies to divest key properties.
Another measure, backed by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., would overturn the FCC’s deregulation using a parliamentary maneuver that allows the lawmakers to sidestep usual legislative procedures.
Said the Consumers Union’s Mr. Murray, “It’s a great debate for us to be having: Which of the three vehicles to overturn the FCC do we go with first?”
With the threat of a major legislative rebuke looming, the FCC’s Mr. Powell last week issued a statement defending the June 2 decision by FCC’s Republican majority, contending that the new rules reflect the realities of today’s media marketplace and benefit the public.
“We are confident in our decision,” Mr. Powell said in his first formal statement on the subject since the controversial vote.
Before voting to approve the cap rollback, the House voted 254-174 to reject an amendment offered by Reps. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and David Price, D-N.C., that would have extended the rollback to include the FCC’s relaxation of its TV duopoly rule and its newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership prohibition.
Several lawmakers expressed concern that the Hinchey amendment would amount to a “poison pill” that would kill the rollback initiative altogether by overreaching.