FCC Decision Dealt Big Blow

Posted July 16, 2003 at 6:49pm

In a slap at President Bush and Congressional GOP leaders, House appropriators approved a measure Wednesday that would reinstate strict limits on the size of the country’s biggest television stations.

The 40-25 vote in the House Appropriations Committee came after Bush signaled that he was prepared to issue the first veto of his presidency to reject the underlying spending bill if it included the controversial television station cap.

In the minutes before the vote, the biggest opponent of the ownership cap, Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), stalked the hallways outside of the Appropriations Committee’s hearing room pleading with Members to oppose the legislation.

Still, 11 Republicans, including a handful of powerful Appropriations cardinals, joined nearly all Democrats in supporting the amendment to reinstate a 35 percent cap on the national audience reach of the media conglomerates. That cap had been loosened by the Federal Communications Commission.

The move riled Republican leaders, especially House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), who now have just a handful of options to prevent the ownership limit from becoming law.

“This limits our options, but it doesn’t eliminate all of them,” said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson. “We may have one hand tied behind our back, but as long as we have one free hand, we can still swing a bat.”

Tauzin and other Republicans said they have not settled on a strategy for blocking the bill.

But Republicans close to the leadership said that GOP leaders likely will let the amendment remain in the annual spending bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments — then try to remove it in a conference with the Senate.

Republicans will “let it go to conference and then bump it out,” said one GOP Member.

But it’s not a certainty that the provision will be stripped in conference, especially since Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has signaled that he wants to reinstate the limits on media ownership. Senate leaders are quietly making plans to add a similar provision to their version of the spending bill.

House GOP leaders oppose a vote to strip the amendment from the bill when it reaches the House floor because the showdown could provide Democrats with an easy public forum to blast Republicans for siding with corporate interests.

In addition, Republican leaders may not have the votes needed to defeat the ownership limits, as evidenced by the broad support the amendment received in the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

Still, some Republicans said the measure won wide support on both sides of the aisle only because GOP leaders have promised to defeat it down the road.

“It’s a free vote,” said Jon Scofield, a spokesman for House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.), who opposed the amendment.

Since Republican leaders plan to block the ownership cap, he said, many Members saw an opportunity to score political points by lashing out at corporate goliaths in the media industry.

“It’s not like you are opposing Bush on his education plan. You are opposing an action by an independent agency that nobody likes. And on the other side is Rupert Murdoch,” Scofield said, referring to the controversial chairman of News Corp.

Even so, the vote in the Appropriations Committee gave new momentum to Congressional efforts to overturn a recent decision by the FCC that lifted the nationwide cap on the national audience reach of the media conglomerates to 45 percent from 35 percent.

“Unless we change the recent FCC policy, media giants will be allowed to increase their share of the nation’s broadcast outlets,” said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the author of the amendment and the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee.

Until Wednesday’s vote in the Appropriations Committee, most of the effort to restore the 35 percent cap was limited to the Senate side of the Capitol.

On Tuesday, 35 Senators used an obscure legislative tool — the “notice of disapproval” — to force a vote within a month on legislation to overturn the FCC’s move. Last month, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee endorsed legislation that would restore the cap.

The effort is led by several key Senators, including Stevens and Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), ranking member on both the Commerce Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the judiciary.

Senate Democratic Policy Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who are both senior members of the Commerce panel, are also on board with Stevens and Hollings.

“We are moving to roll back one of the most complete cave-ins to corporate interests I’ve ever seen,” Dorgan said.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.