House Committee votes to block FCC’s new media ownership cap

With the help of Republicans who bolted their own leadership, the House Appropriations Committee voted last week to block the FCC’s new 45 percent national ownership cap on television stations.

An amendment approved in a bipartisan 40-25 vote would overturn the FCC’s June 2 ownership decisio allowing networks to acquire stations that reach as much as 45 percent of the national television audience. The committee’s action prevents the FCC from spending money to carry out its new rules. That, in effect, keeps the current limit at 35 percent.

The House action took place in front of the general managers of about 75 network owned-and-operated television stations, who visited Capitol Hill last week to lobby for retaining the FCC’s new rules. They watched as the legislators overrode their wishes.

The House action follows intense activity in the Senate to kill the new FCC rules. Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), author of the successful House amendment, said the vote was a victory for those seeking to keep big media conglomerates from getting even bigger and from silencing smaller voices in the process.

“This amendment preserves the needs of local control, so local views have a chance to counterbalance New York and L.A. executives,” Obey said. “Networks that own larger shares of markets can ignore local concerns, and even punish stations that refuse to air network shows or change their time slots.”

Eleven Republicans broke ranks with the House leadership and joined Democrats in support of the amendment. Surprisingly, two of those who defied Republican Party leaders included House subcommittee chairmen Ralph Regula of Ohio and Ernest J. Istook Jr. of Oklahoma.

From their comments, it was clear that members of Congress — swamped with public complaints over media consolidation in recent weeks — were expressing growing displeasure with television broadcasters. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) called commercial television “a garbage pit,” while Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) warned of a “Wal-Mart syndrome” affecting local stations.

The House vote, unlike Senate measures, let stand other parts of the FCC’s ruling, such as the easing of limits on broadcast and newspaper cross-ownership. A Republican amendment that also would have pared back that part of the ruling was defeated on a voice vote in the House.

The significance of the House vote even shook the White House. A presidential spokeswoman, Claire Buchan, said the president’s senior advisers would recommend a veto if a bill including the amendment ultimately reached his desk.

The action also drew fire from Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FCC. “This is exactly not the way to do this,” said Tauzin, who supports the FCC’s new rules.

In justifying the action in the appropriations committee, Republican and Democratic opponents of easing the media rules indicated the move was an end-run around Tauzin. The committee chairman has vowed not to allow legislation overturning the FCC decision to pass through his committee, even though a majority of its members support it. “If we don't move here (at appropriations), absolutely nothing will happen,” Obey said.

The full House, some predicted, may take up the measure as soon as this week. “The fight is far from over,” said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Tauzin. But the large number of Republicans who broke ranks with their leadership over the issue energized opponents to the FCC rules.

“The Republican leadership with White House backing is usually very disciplined in holding their Republicans on the party line,” said Gene Kimmelman, senior director for public policy for Consumers Union. “This breathes new life into the effort to overturn the FCC decision.”

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