WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi rarely find themselves on the same side of the aisle.
But when the Federal Communications Commission voted 3 to 2 to ease media ownership restrictions last week, a bipartisan jolt rattled Capitol Hill, tossing together the liberal Boxer, the conservative Lott and scores of other lawmakers positioned somewhere in between.
"In all the years I've been here," Boxer said, "I've not seen such deeply held feelings across ideologies."
The outbreak of unity in a Congress usually beset by partisan bickering illustrates the immense power of the broadcast industry in the political process. Already, the Senate is poised to possibly overturn some of the new rules, which expand the number of TV stations and newspapers that media companies can buy. A more contentious battle is shaping up in the House but not one based on party loyalties.
"For once, we have an issue that has surprisingly little to do with the usual ideological alignments in Congress," said political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia.
"This is about the lifeblood of successful political candidacies Every member of Congress thinks immediately of his or her state's or district's media organizations. And they ask one big question, silently: Will this change have a desirable or undesirable effect on my next candidacy?"
Lawmakers are well aware that television is crucial to maintaining their image and getting reelected. Many worry that permitting media companies to expand their national presence would give them greater power over everything from public opinion to the rates candidates must pay for campaign commercials.
"I'm not one that has believed always that big is necessarily always bad," Lott said recently. "But when you allow this type of concentration, where you could have a market where one company could own and dominate the print media, could theoretically own one of the dish networks, could own the local cable, could own the local television station or two stations, where's the limit?"
For some, opposition is rooted in personal experience.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), for example, says that in one of his first election campaigns many years ago, the local newspapers joined to endorse his opponent. So he turned to then-emerging television to get his message out. The experience cemented his belief that local newspapers and TV stations should not be co-owned.
"If they are consolidated, they could black you out," Hollings said in an interview earlier this year.
The congressional debate also speaks to the muscle of local broadcasters. The National Assn. of Broadcasters has given about $1 million to lawmakers during each of the last two elections, with about 60% going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Although the NAB lost its bid to keep the FCC from rais- ing ownership limits, the trade group, which represents mostly TV broadcasting affiliates, now is expected to unleash its lobbying clout in Congress, where it enjoys more influence. Still, the organization will face strong opposition from the big TV networks, including CBS parent Viacom Inc. and Fox parent News Corp., which fought to raise the cap.
Although both sides couch the debate in terms of preserving free speech and quality television, it's largely about money. Big networks want to buy more TV stations so that they can extricate themselves from long-term contracts to pay affiliated TV stations to air network programming. Affiliates want to preserve those compensation packages and prevent large networks from squeezing them out of large markets.
Also underlying the unusual bipartisan resistance are the powerful special-interest groups that coalesced before the FCC vote and that span the political spectrum, from the National Rifle Assn. to the National Organization for Women. By the time of the FCC's action last Monday, the agency had received more than 500,000 e-mails and letters.
"All the attention this issue has gotten from the public is hostile to what the FCC is doing," said Robert W. McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "They're not getting anybody flooding them with e-mails saying, 'This is great; we want fewer media owners.' "
No matter the outcome, the conflict over the media rules is certain to play out noisily in the days ahead in Congress and, potentially, in the courts.
Moves are underway in the Senate to roll back the FCC rule allowing companies to increase their nationwide TV presence from 35% of viewers to 45%. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, has scheduled a June 19 vote on the matter. Most observers are betting that the committee will approve the bill and pass it along to the full Senate.
"I was surprised that I was one of only maybe three members of the Commerce Committee who seemed to be in agreement with the FCC," Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) said.
At least three other bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that would constrain or reverse other FCC media ownership regulations. Opponents also are exploring attaching a measure to the annual FCC appropriations bill that would prohibit the agency from spending to implement the new rules.
That proposal stands a good chance because Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been a critic of the FCC decision. Stevens said he was disturbed not only by the panel's vote but also by the process. "There was never any consultation," he said.
For her part, California's other senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, places the odds for a Senate reversal of the rules at "rather good."
"The public is appalled," she said, "and that's good news. Eventually, the public is going to get what the public wants."
Most of these legislative efforts, however, are expected to meet resistance, especially from one member of Congress who has vowed to fight on behalf of the FCC — Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), the powerful chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Tauzin contends that much of the criticism is rooted in a misconception of the scope and potential effect of the new rules, which he said would not lead to media monopolies of the nation's airwaves and newspapers.
Tauzin and other backers of media deregulation say the old rules were outdated in an era in which there are hundreds of cable TV channels and a burgeoning Internet that offers a vastly greater diversity of voices.
"As people begin to understand that, their understanding of the issue is going to give them a sense of comfort in what the commission has done," said Tauzin, who is sending a letter to his colleagues today to counter critics and explain his position.
But Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a leader in the effort to overturn the rules change, said he wasn't deterred by Tauzin's warnings.
"The House is 435 members," Dorgan said. "I've only heard from one who has promised to block it. My hope is that perhaps he'll change his mind, or perhaps the House will decide he's not in charge. Just because someone in the House says they'll block something ought not to tell us to lay down and decide to take a nap here. We need to go at this aggressively and see what we can do."
Resistance by Tauzin or by other select members of the House also may be complicated by what unfolds in the upper chamber, said Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the House telecommunications subcommittee, which oversees the FCC.
"If they are successful in the Senate," Markey said, "then that is going to create real momentum that will put pressure on the House to respond."
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times