Senate Committee Votes on Public Broadcasting and other Media Reforms

The Senate Commerce Committee, meeting on Thursday, July 22nd, supported media reform on several fronts. The committee approved Chairman John McCain’s (R-AZ) bill to reauthorize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (“CPB”). The McCain bill contains no language that would threaten the editorial independence of public broadcasting.

However, the committee was not able to offer any proposals to increase funding for public broadcasting, and to increase the number of local public broadcasters on the CPB board, because of a legislative controversy over an unrelated issue that halted its work in mid-session. These proposals could be added to the CPB reauthorization bill if and when it comes up for a vote by the entire Senate this year. However, it is also possible that amendments harmful to public broadcasting’s editorial integrity and that give the CPB board greater authority to intervene in public broadcasting programs could be offered at a later date, so Common Cause activists will continue to monitor the legislation.

In another pro-reform move, the Commerce Committee approved legislation sponsored by Senators McCain and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that would permit the growth of low-power FM radio stations throughout the country. These stations typically are operated by community groups and aid the cause of localism and diversity in media. Senator McCain was so convinced his bill would not pass that he noted before the vote that the Senate was once again about to support the National Association of Broadcasters, which opposed the expansion of low-power FM, and “against Hispanics, other minorities and community groups.” He added sarcastically, “My congratulations (to NAB lobbyists) for prevailing over people who don’t have a voice.”

But McCain was wrong. The Commerce Committee by a vote of 12 to 10 opposed an amendment submitted by Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) that would have gutted the McCain low-power bill. “This is the first time in history the NAB has not prevailed,” McCain said after the vote.

Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who has fought against media consolidation and strongly supports media reform, also benefited from the hearing. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) complained that the White House had failed to submit Adelstein’s nomination as FCC commissioner to the Senate, even though that nomination had been submitted to the Administration in February 2003. “The White House says [the nomination] is still under consideration,” Dorgan complained.

McCain responded, “If that’s the case, I would join every effort” to move the nomination forward. McCain suggested that all members of the Commerce Committee sign a letter to the White House asking the Administration to send up the Adelstein nomination. Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) concurred, noting that the Administration had tarried so long that it “defies the imagination.”

The committee meeting ended prematurely following efforts by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) to block the nomination of Deborah Majoras to chair the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Senator Wyden invoked an obscure Senate parliamentary rule to block a vote on the FTC nominations. After consulting with the Senate parliamentarian about the ramifications of Senate Rule 26-5A, McCain concluded, “the committee can’t do its work,” and the meeting abruptly disbanded.

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