Ownership cap meets heavy opposition in the House of Representatives

By an overwhelming 400-21 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation last week blocking a new FCC rule that raises the national ownership cap of television stations by the nation’s largest television networks.

The repudiation of the FCC’s June 2 ownership rule has also won significant support in the U.S. Senate. If ultimately successful, new legislation would block a single media company from owning television stations reaching 45 percent of the nation’s households. The ownership cap would remain at the current 35 percent level.

The battle, however, is far from over. President Bush’s staff has recommended that he veto any bill that rolls back the cap. This sets the stage for a rare confrontation between the Republican-controlled Congress and the White House over an issue that only weeks ago was considered obscure.

Opponents of the new FCC rules have setup multiple roadblocks using several legislative strategies. Last week’s House rebuke was included as an amendment in a $37.9 billion spending bill that finances the Justice, State and Commerce departments. The measure now moves to a House-Senate conference committee—whose membership has yet to be determined—where the provision could be stripped from the final legislation. Such hope may be futile, however, because one of the chief sponsors of a similar measure reversing the new F.C.C. rules is Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee.

To have an FCC regulation publicly reach the desk of the President is extremely rare. If faced with deciding the issue, President Bush could carry out his veto threat—the first of his administration—and alienate several conservative organizations opposed to the new FCC rules. Or, he could sign the spending bill, abandon the major television networks and override the wishes of his advisers.

News accounts cited key Republicans in off-the-record comments saying that they would be surprised if the president was willing to expend significant political capital over the FCC issue, which now has broad public support and enough votes in Congress to override a veto.

Five weeks ago, the Senate Commerce Committee adopted a provision similar to the one the House passed. The Senate committee passed the provision by voice vote after a wide majority of Democrats and Republicans on the committee expressed support for it.

However, the Senate measure would not only block the new station ownership caps, but—unlike the House bill—would disallow cross-ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers in larger markets. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) is advocating a rarely used legislative device known as a “resolution of disapproval,” which would effectively vacate the entire FCC decision. The resolution is awaiting a vote in the Senate. To go into effect, it would have to be approved by the House and signed by the President.

Until recently, many broadcasters had assumed any attempt to roll back the FCC’s news rules would be stopped in the House, where Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA) is a staunch supporter of FCC Chairman Michael Powell. However, the House vote clearly demonstrated that the FCC’s supporters had lost control over the legislation.

“The House has now repudiated the FCC’s attempted giveaway of the public airways to national media giants based in New York and L.A.,” said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee and author of the network ownership provision in the bill. “I hope the administration is listening and will fix its flawed policy, so citizens can get accurate, free-flowing information.”

For more information visit www.fcc.gov.

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