Members of Congress fighting new broadcast-ownership rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in June are claiming a House majority exists to overturn the FCC if Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) would only schedule a vote.
"We have the votes to win this," Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) said at a Capitol Hill press conference. "We think we have the votes."
"I will predict that if you get this to the House floor for a vote, it will pass," Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) added. "The Speaker will try every way to block that, I understand that."
Predictions of victory in the House came as a surprise because the Republican-controlled House was considered FCC chairman Michael Powell's anchor of support.
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy who blasted Powell's FCC for permitting greater media consolidation, was less optimistic that the House was prepared to take down the FCC's policies.
"I think its important to try, but it's going to be hard to convince the House leadership to allow a fair vote," Chester said.
In June, the FCC adopted rules allowing for greater media concentration. In large markets, the FCC would allow one company to own the dominant newspaper, three TV stations, eight radio stations, and potentially the cable company.
The FCC justified the move as an attempt to update old rules and improve broadcasting's economic underpinnings in a media environment that now includes not just off-air TV and radio stations, but cable TV, satellite TV and the Internet.
Last month, the Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Dorgan voiding the FCC's rules.
But Hastert and Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) indicated immediately after the vote that they would not support House action on a similar resolution.
On Oct. 17, 190 House members — 28 votes shy of a majority — sent Hastert a letter requesting a vote in light of the strong public interest in the issue. Eight House Republicans signed the letter.
"The Senate has addressed this matter and executed its responsibility. In the House of Representatives, we should do no less," the one-page letter said.
Forcing A Vote
If, as expected, House leaders do not respond favorably, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y,) said he planned to force a House vote by obtaining at least 218 signatures on a discharge petition.
"We are seeking a vote now," said Hinchey, who expects the House to remain in session a few more weeks before adjourning for the year.
The White House has threatened to veto legislation that would roll back the FCC's new rules.
In July, the House passed a spending bill that would roll back the FCC's decision to allow one TV station group to increase its potential audience reach from 35% to 45%. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed an identical provision. Both would elapse after one year, if not renewed.
The National Association of Broadcasters supported the rollback to 35%, but it and the Newspaper Association of America do not support rolling back the FCC's decision to allow TV-newspaper combinations in the same local market.
Chester said that he expected Congress to restore the 35% cap but nothing else because of how the lobbying interests have lined up.
"All along, I felt the real politics here are with the 35% cap because the [network] affiliates support reversing the national cap," Chester said.
Meanwhile, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit has stayed the FCC's rules from taking effect pending appeal. Oral arguments in the case are on Jan. 12, 2004.
Last Tuesday, ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates filed a brief with the 3rd Circuit arguing that the FCC's adoption of the 45% cap ignored the market power of the "Big Four" networks and, as a result, represented "arbitrary and capricious" decision-making.
"The [FCC] majority sought to justify its decision to increase the cap to 45% in three short paragraphs of its order. These crucial but summary paragraphs evince quintessential arbitrary and capricious agency decision-making," CBS, NBC and ABC affiliates said.