In an unprecedented rebuff to the agenda of big media, the House of Representatives on Wednesday approved by a 400-21 vote an appropriations bill that includes languarge blocking implementation of a Federal Communications Commission rule change designed to allow a single corporation to own television stations that reach up to 45 percent of American viewers. That FCC rule change, for which Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and other media giants had mounted a fierce lobbying campaign, also faces broad opposition in the Senate. With the House echoing that opposition, Congress is currently positioned to block implementation of a rule change that is near and dear to the hearts--and bottom lines--of America's media giants.
While the Bush White House continues to promote the big-media agenda as part of an overall strategy of reworking regulations to favor large corporate campaign givers -- raising the prospect that the president might veto Congressional moves to prevent the FCC from implementing this rule change -- veteran Capitol Hill observers say public opposition to the FCC rule changes has grown so powerful that even the president could change his tune. "If the White House is threatening a veto on this, they offer that at their own peril," explained Andy Davis, an aide to US Sen. Ernest Hollings, the powerful South Carolina Democrat who is a key player behind the Senate effort to reverse the FCC's June 2 decision to raise the television ownership cap from 35 percent to 45 percent. "This is an issue that has enormously broad bipartisan support. People are very passionate about this issue."
Republican leaders in the House felt that passion this week, as many members of their own caucus signaled that they would support reversal of the FCC's decision to raise the ownership cap. That caused the leadership to back off efforts to strip the appropriations bill language that prevents the FCC from implementing the change.
But the real measure of the extent to which the dynamic in Congress is shifting came in one of the first serious floor fights in recent years on a media ownership issue.
The ownership cap is just one of a number of rule changes approved by the FCC and it is not the worst of them. The most troubling rewrite of the rules by the commission is a measure that allows a single company to own television and radio stations, the local daily newspaper and the cable system in the same city. The FCC's move to lift limits on "cross-ownership" poses a genuine threat to competition, diversity and local programming and it is opposed by religious, labor, civil rights and community groups, as well as conservatives such as New York Times columnist William Safire.
In the Senate, there is bipartisan support for reversing the FCC's cross-ownership rule change. But in the House, Republican and Democratic leaders blocked efforts to amend the appropriations bill to include language that would prevent the FCC from implementing this industry-backed rule shift. That led to a remarkable revolt on the House floor Tuesday, and provoked the most engaged debate on media and democracy issues that the Congress has seen in modern times.
Representatives Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, a leading figure in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and David Price, D-North Carolina, a member of the Appropriations Committee, introduced a resolution to roll back the cross-ownership rule change. Opposed not just by top Republicans but two of the most powerful Democrats in the House, Michigan's John Dingell and Wisconsin's David Obey, the assault on the high-priority agenda item for big-media lobbies was not expected to win a significant number of votes. A decision by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to schedule an earlier than expected vote on the amendment dimmed its prospects further.
But, on Tuesday, a strong push from the activist networks of MoveOn.org, Consumers Union, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Free Press and labor groups, as well as deft strategic moves by Hinchey, Price and Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, pulled together an unexpected bipartisan coalition that suggests it may yet be possible to reverse the cross-ownership rule. With phones in House offices ringing off their hooks -- many members estimated that they received as many as 100 calls an hour urging support for the Hinchey amendment -- a bipartisan cross-section of members trooped to the floor to condemn media monopoly.
Oregon's Democrat Peter DeFazio described the FCC's loosening of media ownership controls as "perhaps the most radical usurpation of the public interest in the history of regulation," while Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey called the commission's June 2 votes "the worst decision ever made by the Federal Communications Commission." Markey said that the cross-ownership change would create a situation where, "The kind of power that one company is going to have in your hometown is going to make Citizen Kane look like an underachiever."
Warning that loosening existing limits on cross-ownership would limit discourse and undermine democracy, Washington Democrat Jay Inslee declared that, "A monopoly ideas is ultimately more destructive to American democracy than a monopoly of money." California Democrat Barbara Lee echoed his frustration and added a note of concern about how further monopolization of media ownership would shut out minority voices. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, described the rule change as "totally against the interests of democracy," while Inslee urged Congress to "give American what they want, which is less consolidation of the media."
Faced with powerful arguments for the Hinchey-Price amendment, Obey, who wrote the spending bill provision rolling back the ownership cap to 35 percent, said he agreed with "every word" of the arguments from foes of the cross-ownership rule change, But he expressed his fear that adding the Hinchey-Price amendment to the appropriations bill would guarantee a Bush veto that Congress probably could not override. "We have a tactical disagreement," said Obey, who indicated support for alternative moves to block the cross-ownership rule. But, noting the public pressure on the issue, other members argued that Obey had made a tactical error by not throwing his support behind the Hinchey-Price amendment.
Sanders told the House that public indignation over media consolidation has grown so strong that even the Bush administration would feel the pressure. Members of the FCC and Congress have received an estimated 2.3 million communications from Americans saying they oppose loosening of controls on media ownership. And Inslee said that if a bill containing the roll back of the cross-ownership rule change got to the president's desk, White House phone and email systems would "melt down" with calls from Americans supporting the measure.
In the end, pressure from DeLay, Dingell and Obey, as well as big-media lobbyists, was sufficient to block the Hinchey-Price amendment. But the vote was a far closer than expected 254-174 -- a margin Senate foes of the FCC rule changes say will strengthen their hand in negotiations with the House. Significantly, the 139 Democrats who backed the Hinchey-Price amendment were joined by 34 Republicans, including House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin. That means that, on the committee charged with examining anti-trust and monopoly issues, the ranking Republican and the ranking Democrat, Michigan's John Conyers, have expressed their opposition to cross-ownership.
After years in which media companies have rolled their agenda over Congress with few objections, Inslee said a "tsunami" of public pressure was starting to change the course of Congress. He was right. With the House endorsing efforts to roll back the FCC's rule change regarding television ownership caps, and with Obey and other members who voted against the Hinchey-Price amendment saying they are ready to move in other directions to roll back the cross-ownership rule change, the Congressional fight against not just the FCC but the broader crisis of media consolidation has only just begun.