WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of U.S. senators threatened on Monday to override the Federal Communications Commission if the agency votes to loosen media ownership restrictions at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday.
A group of 25 senators sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, warning they would “move legislation to revoke the rule and nullify the vote” if the FCC lifts ownership restrictions in the 20 biggest U.S. cities.
The group, including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii, and the panel’s top Republican, Ted Stevens of Alaska, said the FCC had not spent enough time studying the issue and seeking input from the public.
The senators accused Martin of ignoring the public’s right “to play a constructive role” in the decision.
A spokeswoman for the FCC declined to comment on the letter.
However, in a December 4 letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said the Bush administration would oppose any “attempt to delay or overturn these revised (FCC) rules by legislative means.”
“The administration has long supported modernization of media ownership regulations to more accurately reflect the changing media landscape,” Gutierrez wrote in his letter to Reid.
Martin’s proposal is expected to be approved at Tuesday’s meeting with the support of the two other Republicans on the commission. They say the FCC has been studying the media ownership issue and soliciting public opinion for years.
The proposed changes have drawn objections from consumer groups and some lawmakers, as well as the FCC’s two Democratic commissioners.
Existing FCC rules ban ownership of a newspaper, and a television or radio station in the same market, unless the FCC grants a waiver.
Critics, led by Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, say easing ownership rules will lead to more industry consolidation, eliminate independent voices and degrade local news coverage. They also argue Martin’s proposal contains a loophole that would cause a wave of mergers beyond the top 20 markets.
On November 30, the three Republican commissioners approved an order temporarily waiving the ownership restrictions for media group Tribune Co, allowing the company to proceed with its planned leveraged buy-out.
The concerns prompted lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee to endorse a bill earlier this month that would have imposed a 6-month delay on the FCC in deciding on the ownership rule changes.
Democrats in the House also expressed misgivings at a hearing earlier this month about the proposed changes and asked Martin if he would delay the decision.
Later on Monday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, said he also had sent a letter to Martin repeating the request to delay action.
However, a Capitol Hill source said House lawmakers had been stymied recently on efforts to advance legislation that would force the FCC to postpone the media ownership decision.
They had hoped to attach the legislation to a catch-all spending bill that lawmakers are hoping to pass before they adjourn for the year later this week. But the idea was rejected by Democratic leaders, the source said.
“It seems like if he wants to take a vote, he’s going to take a vote,” this source said, referring to Martin.
Reporting by Peter Kaplan; Editing by Tim Dobbyn