US Media Law: Bush, Congress on Collision Course

24 July 2003

Congress is now firmly on collision course with the Bush administration over the recent relaxation of media ownership rules by the Federal Communications Commission.

Despite written threats from the White House that it will veto any new legislation to maintain existing ownership limits, the House of Representatives now looks set to approve a measure doing exactly that.

On Tuesday, the House debated a spending bill to fund the Departments of State, Commerce and Justice plus regulatory agencies. Among these bodies is the FCC, which last month unveiled a sweeping liberalization of America’s media market [WAMN: 03-Jun-03] – to the delight of Big Media but horrifying a diverse range of consumer and special-interest groups.

The Republican-controlled House was previously expected to kill efforts by various lawmakers to overturn this deregulation, which is fervently supported by President Bush. But after a dramatic rebellion last week by eleven Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, the bill now before the House contains provisions to stop the FCC spending money on implementing its proposals – effectively ensuring the existing regulatory regime is maintained [WAMN: 18-Jul-03].

One such amendment, which would have reversed the FCC’s decision to allow ownership of a TV station and newspaper in the same market, was defeated 254–174 on Tuesday night. However, the Republican leadership in the House – fearing it could not raise enough support – did not even try to overturn a provision that would keep a TV company’s maximum national reach at 35% rather than the raised limit of 45% proposed by the FCC. Media giants such as Viacom and News Corporation are both already over the 35% limit.

The bill is expected to gain House approval this week, though supporters of the FCC proposals – such as House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman William J Tauzin (Republican, Louisiana) – hope that the veto threats will kill all such amendments during final negotiations with the Senate.

Should this gamble not pay off, the bill could spark the first veto confrontation between Bush and a Congress dominated by his own party. However, the President may have difficulty vetoing the anti-FCC measures if they are contained in vital spending legislation. Not only that, a presidential veto could still be overturned by a two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate.

Data sourced from: multiple sources; additional content by WARC staff