The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to prohibit the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from using taxpayer dollars to impose the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters who feature conservative radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
By a vote of 309-115, lawmakers amended the Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill to bar the FCC from requiring broadcasters to balance conservative content with liberal programming such as Air America.
The vote count was partly a testament to the influence that radio hosts wield in many congressional districts.
It was also a rebuke to Democratic senators and policy experts who have voiced support this week for regulating talk radio.
House Democrats argued that it was merely a Republican political stunt because there is little danger of the FCC restricting conservative radio while George W. Bush is president.
Republicans counter that they are worried about new regulations if a Democrat wins the White House in 2008.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said on Tuesday that the government should revive the Fairness Doctrine, a policy crafted in 1929 that required broadcasters to balance political content with different points of view.
"It's time to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine," he said. "I have this old-fashioned attitude that when Americans hear both sides of the story, they're in a better position to make a decision."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, said this week that she would review the constitutional and legal issues involved in re-establishing the doctrine.
Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic Party's 2004 presidential nominee, also said recently that the Fairness Doctrine should return.
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In 1985 the FCC discarded the policy after deciding that it restricted journalistic freedom and "actually inhibit[ed] the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public and in degradation of the editorial prerogative of broadcast journalists," according to a Congressional Research Service report.
Thursday, the House firmly rejected the prospect of requiring balanced views on talk radio.
Before the passage of the amendment, which he sponsored, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a former full-time radio host, forecast a big majority and took a shot at the Senate, saying: "This House will say what some in the other body are not saying, that we believe in freedom on the airwaves. We reject the doctrines of the past that would have this federal government manage political speech on the public airwaves."
Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) also sponsored the legislation.
Conservatives fear that forcing stations to make equal time for liberal talk radio would slash profits and pressure radio executives to scale back on conservative programming to avoid escalating costs and interference from government regulators. Opponents of the Fairness Doctrine argue that radio stations would suffer financially if forced to air liberal as well as conservative programs because liberal talk radio has not proven popular or profitable. For example, Air America, liberals' answer to "The Rush Limbaugh Show" and Michael Medved, filed for bankruptcy in October.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday that listeners should be able to decide if they want to hear different political arguments.
"The best way is to let the judgment of the American people decide, and they can decide with their finger," Boehner said.
"[People] can turn it off or they can turn it on. They can go to their computer and read it on the Internet."
Flake added: "Rather than having the government regulate what people can say, we should let the market decide what people want to hear. That's precisely why the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned, and that's why it ought not to be revived."
At the end of Thursday's debate, Democratic House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (Wis.) agreed with Republicans that the government should not regulate conservative radio hosts such as Limbaugh and Hannity.
"We ought to let right-wing talk radio go on as they do now," he said. "Rush and Sean are just about as important in the scheme of things as Paris Hilton, and I would hate to see them gain an ounce of credibility by being forced by a government agency or anybody else to moderate their views enough that they might become modestly influential or respected."
© 2007 Capitol Hill Publishing Corp., a subsidiary of News Communications, Inc