BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Several members of Congress have been looking to restore media ownership rules ever since the June 2nd FCC decision to relax regulation. The biggest impediment, though, has been the threat of Representative Billy Tauzin, a proponent of the FCC ruling who vowed to block any efforts against it in the House. A few bills have been introduced in the Senate in the past month, but under the watchful eye of Tauzin, no one -- even the senators themselves, expected them to go far.
BOB GARFIELD:But some representatives got smart. Last week, instead of introducing a sure-to-fail bill in the Tauzin-chaired Commerce Committee, they instead attached an amendment to a sure-to-pass appropriations bill. On Wednesday that bill did indeed pass in the full House by a vote of 400 to 21. Now, amid rumors that FCC Chairman Michael Powell could step down in the fall, the prospect of restoring big media restrictions seems very likely. Joining me is Alicia Mundy, senior editor of Cable World magazine. Alicia, welcome back to the show.
ALICIA MUNDY: Hi! Thanks for having me!
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, now [LAUGHS] when we talked three weeks ago, you gave us your prediction of whether this legislation could ever pass. In fact, we have a clip [GLISSANDO ON HARP] [LAUGHTER] from that conversation. [CLIP PLAYS]
BOB GARFIELD:All right. In one word or less, does meaningful legislation canceling out the FCC's action have the slightest chance of being passed by both houses of Congress?
ALICIA MUNDY: No. That would be no. [GLISSANDO ON HARP]
BOB GARFIELD: Well, the House Appropriations Committee has certainly put a dent in your "snowball's chance in hell" theory.
ALICIA MUNDY: I said that snowball would melt and I have news for you -- that snowball is intact - it's bigger than ever -- and for those of us who cover Congress, it's exciting because it's so much fun when something completely goes amiss - and nobody sees it.
BOB GARFIELD:[LAUGHS] Now among those surprised by this turn of events is pretty much the entire U.S. Senate. [LAUGHTER] It was in the Senate that the -- a similar bill was introduced a month ago, but you reported that it was never even meant to pass; that everyone expected the issue to die in the House. How have the senators reacted that this is actually materializing into a--genuine rebuke of the FCC?
ALICIA MUNDY: Well that bill in the Senate still is the kitchen sink bill, and I still think that that one cannot pass in the form that it is. What has passed in the House is a very simple part - one part of that Senate bill which says we are not going to let the networks own more than 35 percent of the television stations across the United States. No one network can own more than 35 percent. But the senators -- they kind of played around with everything and I guess they figured, you know, it would die under its own weight. The House Appropriations people were serious, and they said we're going to take the one part that we know that's winnable that says "big media" all over it, and we're going to push this thing through -- and they did!
BOB GARFIELD:Now ordinarily if this were not a rider to the entire appropriations bill, a conference committee would have to somehow reconcile the different Senate and House versions of the bill. But because it is a rider, what happens in the Senate now?
ALICIA MUNDY: What you need is a matching Senate appropriations bill. Now that will come probably the first week of September when the senators get back. So there will probably be a matching Senate appropriations bill, and in the interim there's one other thing hanging out there -- it's called the "disapproval resolution" which says we disapprove of everything the FCC did. If that goes to the Senate floor and gets enough votes to pass, it automatically goes to the House floor; Billy Tauzin once again doesn't get a chance to get his hands on it. I mean there's been some brilliant legislative strategy that the Democrats have put together with the help of Republicans, and it's the first time some of us who've covered Congress for years have seen some interesting democratic moves in years!
BOB GARFIELD:Now the White House notified Congress in a letter that President Bush would veto any bill that comes out of Congress overturning the FCC's actions. Now putting aside for a moment whether the White House would veto an entire appropriations bill and stop funding the government, what are the political ramifications now that it's quite clear that there is no public support for the deregulation?
ALICIA MUNDY: There's a law of physics that says-- things happen to paper. It burns and it turns to ash. And I think that letter is made out of paper right now, and [LAUGHS] I think that's what you're going to see happen to it. The White House is saying publicly we've sent a letter, we will veto this, etc, etc. I am told, however, that at a meeting last week, Karl Rove and other people in the White House privately told the networks there is no way we are going to veto this unless you come to us with proof that you have signatures of enough members of Congress to support our veto. We may make noise and thunder and lightning and all of that stuff, but you're not going to see a veto unless you can already produce the signatures. And -- here's the dilemma of the White House. If the White House vetoes it, the Democrats have a rallying cry which even Republicans are telling me is a dangerous thing to do. If the White House doesn't veto it -- it's only a one year's rider! It comes up for renewal when? September 30th, 2004 -- that's in the middle of what we call the "election season." Not good.
BOB GARFIELD: Not to put too fine a point on it, the Bush administration at the moment is damned if it does, damned if it doesn't.
ALICIA MUNDY: I would say instead of having a letter in their hands, they have a pickle.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right. Well, Alicia, thank you very much!
ALICIA MUNDY: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD: Alicia Mundy is senior editor of Cable World and she's with us just damn near all the time! [MUSIC]