Senate Votes to Reverse New Media Rules

Despite a veto threat from President Bush, the Senate — in a 55-40 vote — approved a rarely used congressional mechanism to state its opposition to the new media regulations, which were passed by a politically divided Federal Communications Commission on June 2. 

Before the Senate vote Tuesday morning, Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) — the two main sponsors of the resolution — urged fellow lawmakers to support the measure to undo all the FCC relaxed ownership rules, which they argued would consolidate too much power in too few giant media corporations to the detriment of localism and diversity. 

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said, “We should overturn this rule and ask the FCC to go back to the drawing board.” She added that the commission failed to get enough public comment before making its decision.

“Many of us are very concerned about concentration in broadcasting and in the media and the Federal Communications Commission rule moves in exactly the wrong direction,” Dorgan said at a press conference in July, when he and Lott first announced their plans to invoke the seldom-used “resolution of disapproval” under the Congressional Review Act of 1996. A bipartisan coalition of over 30 senators stood beside Dorgan and Lott to show their united opposition to the new regulations.

“Broadcast stations operate on airwaves that are owned by the public, under licenses that require they serve the cause of localism and diversity,” Dorgan said in a Sept. 11 press statement. “The FCC seems to have forgotten that, but the American people have not forgotten.”

Dorgan called the FCC’s action “one of the most complete cave-ins to corporate interests I’ve ever seen by what is supposed to be a federal regulatory agency.” 

He noted that the public has sent thousands of petitions asking that the FCC rules be rolled back. 

But Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), a vocal proponent of the FCC’s ruling, spoke against the resolution. “As long as choices in the market will determine where (people) get their information based on people choosing where they watch, that seems to be the American way. Let there by choices. Let freedom ring, basically. Then, America will choose viewership. In my opinion, this resolution would go the opposite way of where we should go.”

The congressional resolution of disapproval — used only once before in 2001 when the Republican-controlled Congress and the White House repealed worker-protection rules adopted by the Clinton administration — now moves to the House, where it is expected to face an uphill battle.

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a supporter of the new rules, said he would “vigorously resist any attempts to revisit these issues this year.”

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has no immediate plans to introduce the Senate-approved resolution to the floor for a vote, according to Hastert’s spokesman, John Feehery, as quoted by the Wall Street Journal. 

Despite Hastert’s apparent hesitation to introduce the resolution, the House in July approved an appropriations bill containing language that would prevent the FCC from enacting a new rule to expand media companies’ market reach from 35 percent to 45 percent. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a similar measure Sept. 4.

If the House approves the resolution of disapproval, the measure would then require President Bush’s signature to go into effect.

However, Mr. Bush — an advocate of FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s agenda to ease limits on media ownership — has repeatedly warned Congress he would veto any spending bill, or congressional resolution, containing language undoing all or parts of the FCC’s new ownership rules.

The resolution would need a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate to override the president’s veto.

Should the resolution ultimately succeed, the measure would throw back the revised ownership rules to the FCC and force the agency to rewrite its rules from scratch.

Powell said, in response to the Senate vote, that if the resolution ultimately succeeds, it “would only muddy the media regulatory waters. It would bring no clarity to media regulation, only chaos.”

The Senate action comes amid intensifying debates over the media ownership rules. A federal appeals court in Philadelphia on Sept. 3 issued a stay, temporarily blocking the new FCC rules from taking effect as scheduled Sept. 4.