Tales of the Sausage Factory: Indecent bandwagon rolls on

Well the House and Senate have been busy little, ahem, beavers on the indecency front. The surprise is the provisions on media ownership. Will they survive a House vote over the opposition of the Republican leadership? Will Bush veto indecency regulation to save his buddies in big media? Stay tuned to Survivor: Washington.

As reported in Reuters here, the Senate Commerce Committee has reported out a bill designed to curb indecent content on the airwaves. The bill is similar to, but not identical to one the House Commerce Committee passed yesterday.

But the Senate Commerce Committee has included a provision that puts the FCC’s rules relaxing media ownership restrictions on hold until the General Accounting Office (GAO) can study the link between concentration and indecency. The House Commerce Committee considered a similar amendment, but the amendment was withdrawn when numerous Committee members expressed concern that it was too controversial a provision.

Now both bills will be reported out to their respective houses, and a merry little floor fight it shall be. Since restrictions on media ownership are far more popular in the Senate than the House, odds are very good (IMO) that the amendment putting further acquisitions on hold will survive the inevitable attempt by the Republican leadership to strip the amendment and preserve the harsher indecency fines.

The House is more complicated. Supporters of ownership limitations can try to offer a floor amendment. But the Rules Committee can block the Amendment before it comes to the floor. Since the Chair of the Rules Committee opposes restrictions on media ownership, they are very likely to block any attempt to amend the House bill to conform to the Senate.

But this is by no means a foregone conclusion. The House leadership tried to block an appropriation amendment limiting the ownership cap to 35% last year. To everyone’s surprise and amazement, they failed. The rollback amendment triggered a genuine back-bencher revolt and it passed 400-16.

Here, even if the Rules Committee chair dislikes the rule, the Committee may revolt against the chair and allow the amendment to come forward. Even if the Rules Committee does not allow the amendment to come to the floor, supporters of ownership limits can still try to get the equivalent of a discharge petition by a 2/3 vote.

Whatever happens, unless one house passes an amendment conforming the bill to the other house’s version, it goes to conference committee (we all remembering our “School House Rock”?) to resolve the differences. Here is where the Republican leadership may be able to strip out the amendments they don’t like and send the bill back to the floor for a straight up or down vote. But again, this is not as easy as one might think. Last year, the Republican leadership proved unable to strip out a roll back of the ownership limits. They compromised on a 39% cap — allowing the largest groups to keep their stations but not allow further consolidation.

It would be a serious political quandry for the President to receive a bill on indecency with ownership provisions it finds noxious. Especially in an election year. I suspect for this reason the Republican leadership will ultimately be able to quell any revolt this time and will ultimate get some sort of compromise — like a GAO study but with no suspension of the new ownership rules — through.

But this has been one Hell of a wild ride. A year ago, no one would have given media reregulation a chance in Hades of passing. Who knows what will happen next?

Stay tuned . . . .

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2 Comments

  1. John says:

    Thank you, Janet and Justin!

    Harold, can you remind us who some of the key plaers are? “The Senator from Disney” — that was Hollings, I think? Where are the fulcrum points in this debate?

  2. Harold says:

    Hollings is “the Senator from Disney” in the intellectual property arena, but he is no friend to the networks here. (On the flip side, ABC is least affected by the rules changes. It is well under the station cap (25%), owns no newspapers or cable systems (channels yes, but not systems), has a relatively small radio group, and doesn’t want to buy multiple stations in the same market).

    But the key players are:

    John McCain- Current chair of the Commerce Committee. McCain expresses concern over media concentration but has been reluctant to take any steps on it. He supports low power FM radio as an alternative to existing commercial radio and may sponsor a bill to liberalize the LPFM rules.

    Trent Lott: As republican as they come, a heavy weight in the Senate, and furious with the media for how they treated him on that ‘lil ole segregation thang.

    Conrad Burns- Chair of the Media Subcommittee of Commerce. Generally pro-deregulation but suspicious of cross ownership when the co-owned media outlets in his state teamed up against him in his re-relection bid in 2000.

    Olympia Snowe- Moderate Republican, opposed to further consolidation in the media. One of the leaders of the “moderate” wing of the Republican Senate.

    Dorgan- The chief Democratic champion against media ownership. Minot in his state is the poster-child for when bad things happen in media consolidation. A train carrying amonia spilled and local police called the radio stations to get the emergency broadcast signal operating and coordinate evacuation efforts. Because the station was slaved to a centralcasting system, no human being was present and local authorities could not contact anyone at the local radio stations — which continued to broadcast music, “local news” and weather.

    Inoyue– Ranking member of the Subcommittee. Concerned that the FCC rules would give one media company control of all media outlets in his state of Hawaii.

    Bill Frist- President of the Senate, opposed to media regulation.

    House players later

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