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Senate Approves Measure to Undo FCC Rules

The Senate voted 55 to 40 today to wipe out all of the Federal Communication Commission’s controversial new media rules, employing a little used legislative tool for overturning agency regulations.

The resolution of disapproval, sponsored by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), is now put on the House calendar, where a tougher vote is expected. Even if passed by the House, the White House has promised a veto.

Dorgan’s resolution is the most sweeping of several challenges to the FCC’s rules, which make it easier for media corporations to buy more newspapers and television stations but tighten radio ownership rules.

On June 2, the FCC passed new rules that allow a newspaper to buy a television station in the same city or vice versa, combinations known as “cross-ownership.” Also, the new rules let a broadcast network, such as ABC and Fox, own a group of stations that reach up to 45 percent of the national audience, up from 35 percent, the current “national cap.” They allow one media company to own more than one station in many cities. Finally, the new rules tighten radio ownership rules, essentially capping national radio consolidation. This rule would be overturned by Dorgan’s resolution as well, allowing radio conglomerates to grow bigger.

“To get a small tightening for radio you have to pay for that with [a 45 percent cap] and cross-ownership; it’s too high of a price,” Dorgan said yesterday. “We’re telling the FCC to do it over and do it right. Reverting back to June 2 is not catastrophic as far as I’m concerned.”

Since the new rules were passed, bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate that would roll back pieces of the regulations. In July, the House passed a spending bill with a rider that would fix the national cap at 35 percent. Earlier this month, the Senate Appropriations Committee attached the same rider to a spending bill; a vote has not been scheduled. Dorgan also said he would attach a rider to the Senate spending bill that would re-instate the ban on cross-ownership arrangements.

Nonetheless, Dorgan said his resolution is necessary try to halt the “galloping concentration” in the media, while acknowledging that the resolution faces “some white water rapids” in the House.

On Sept. 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia put the new FCC rules on hold as it considered an appeal. Yesterday the court denied a petition by several media companies to move the review to the D.C. circuit, which has frowned on media ownership rules in the past. While the rules are on hold, the FCC has said it will not take up media applications to the agency, such as license-transfer bids that are the backbone of media mergers.

The new FCC rules were championed by FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, who argued that consolidation was less a threat now than when the rules were enacted because consumers have many more choices for their news and entertainment.

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