FCC Chair: Media Rules Will Prevail

Posted September 15, 2003 at 6:44pm

Taking aim at his opponents heading into a key Senate vote today, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell boldly predicted Monday that Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) will fail in his attempt to overturn the agency’s newly relaxed ownership rules for television broadcasters and newspaper publishers.

The legislation “probably will pass” the Senate, Powell conceded, “but one of the reasons that it probably will pass is that it is so otherwise unlikely to become law.”

House Republicans are “very, very unlikely” to take up the measure and President Bush will surely issue his first veto if the resolution ever reaches his desk, Powell said.

It is not surprising that a high-ranking regulator would forecast failure for his political opponents.

But Powell’s public comments just hours before today’s Senate vote underscores his genuine confidence that House Republicans will block the legislation — a move that all but guarantees that the rules will survive a four-month onslaught from Capitol Hill.

Indeed, Dorgan — the author of the resolution on the Senate floor today — acknowledged Monday that he has no way of forcing House leaders to call up the measure once it passes the Senate.

“We can only do what we can in the United States Senate,” Dorgan admitted.

A strong Senate vote, however, would “send a powerful signal to the FCC and the president to do this and do it right.”

The development comes as Dorgan plans to use the Congressional Review Act to force a vote today on a resolution that would overturn the FCC decision in June to ease several limitations on the size of television networks and newspapers.

Powell, a Republican tapped by Bush to serve as chairman of the independent agency, also criticized the Senate for turning to a little-used parliamentary maneuver to try to overturn the rules.

Relying on the CRA’s resolution of disapproval, Powell said, is a “very bad, ill-considered” decision that is “bordering on the absurd.”

“It makes great headlines, but does it make great policy?” he asked.

Powell said the 1995 law was intended to allow Congress to strike down unnecessary regulations imposed by energetic federal regulators. In this case, however, Members of Congress are using the law to strike a deregulatory move.

“It was a Gingrich-era creation for stopping agencies from regulation, not using as a tool to get people to regulate more aggressively,” Powell said. “Congress owns a lot of power, why do we have to resort to weird extraordinary devices to consider media ownership?”

Noting that the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has approved its own media ownership rules, he said: “Why shouldn’t that be the vehicle for debate? That is how legislation is supposed to work.”

Powell also made it clear during the interview that he has been singed by lawmakers and newspaper editorials that have attacked him personally for pushing the rules.

“I’m a person and I don’t like it, but I am very capable of divorcing myself from it,” said the FCC chairman, who is the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. “This isn’t about Mike Powell.”

He stressed that the decision was made by a five-person commission, which approved the rules on a 3-2 vote.

“It’s important to remember that we are an agency. We have five members by design. I can’t do anything by myself,” he said.

“Sometimes I read the paper and I think, ‘Gosh, I wish I had the agency the paper acts like I have. I am all powerful [and] every decision is my decision.’”

Powell dismissed talk that he is upset with the other two Republican commissioners for letting him take most of the ridicule and abuse that accompanied the decision.

“It’s a factual matter that they haven’t been out as much as me, but the fact of the matter is that a lot of the time the media will only take you,” he said. “One of the obligations of the chairman is that you are the spokesperson for the agency and you are the personification of your choices.”

As for the other Republicans — Kathleen Abernathy and Kevin Martin — Powell said “they’ve been supportive. [But] I don’t know of anybody who is jumping to volunteer.”

Despite the heat, Powell said he has no plans to leave the commission.

The chairman said that reports this summer in several major newspapers and magazines speculating that he will leave the FCC shortly are “flatly wrong.”

“I have no impending, end-of-term decision to make,” he added.

On another matter, Powell indicated that the FCC would likely approve the merger between Univision and Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. by the end of the week.

But he added: “I’ve been here six years, ‘done deals’ are not [always] done.”