WASHINGTON, February 20, 2009 - In what could potentially be an opening salvo in a renewed congressional battle over network neutrality, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., wants to use a parliamentary tactic to force his Democratic colleagues to vote on whether the Federal Communications Commission should be stripped of the power to re-impose the Fairness Doctrine on broadcast radio.
The Fairness Doctrine, which was scrapped in 1987 after the FCC found that it was necessary to foster diversity of viewpoints in the broadcast medium, mandated that, as a condition of their licenses, broadcasters provide an opportunity for both sides of view when reporting on controversial issues.
A few statements by Democratic legislators have raised the ire of conservative activists, who fear that Democrats intend to revive the old rule as a way of gagging talk radio, a medium widely seen as favorable to the political right.
Now that Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House, the prospect of a Democrat-controlled FCC makes many Republicans wary that, after more than 20 years, the Fairness Doctrine might be revived.
FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, a Republican, raised an alarm in August when voting against an order reprimanding broadband internet provider Comcast for improper network management practices.
McDowell warned that the commission's vote was a sign of a resurgent Fairness Doctrine. "I think it won't be called the Fairness Doctrine by folks who are promoting it," McDowell said at the time. "I think it will be called something else and I think it'll be intertwined into the net neutrality debate."
McDowell's warnings on net neutrality have nothing to do with the Fairness Doctrine, said Marvin Ammori, general counsel for Free Press, the non-profit group that, with Public Knowledge, complained about Comcast’s network management practices at the FCC.
"Commissioner McDowell is wrong," said Ammori. "He is simply confusing the issue."
Ammori said that the only relationship he could find between the Fairness Doctrine and calls for an open Internet are "misguided attempts by those like Commissioner McDowell to confuse the two." While Ammori called internet openness an issue with "wide political and public support on both sides of the isle," he derided the Fairness Doctrine as "long defunct...with deservedly little political support."
The lack of support alluded to by Ammori was confirmed by Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps, a Democrat, who has said he has no intention of reviving the old rules without congressional intervention. Copps called the controversy "kind of yesterday's fight," and said such a choice should be left up to Congress.
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush each vetoed legislation that would have revived the Fairness Doctrine.
President Obama has denied support for reviving the doctrine. But because a variety of court rulings have affirmed the FCC's power to impose a variety of free speech constraints upon those who transmit over the airwaves, DeMint's "Broadcaster Freedom Act," S. 34, would permanently strip the body of any such authority.
The bill has languished since its introduction last month. DeMint wants to offer similar language as an amendment to the D.C. Voting Rights Act, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has placed on the Senate's legislative calendar. DeMint could offer his amendment as early as Monday afternoon.
In a statement, Senator DeMint commended President Obama's opposition to the doctrine. Nevertheless, DeMint wants his colleagues to take a position on it, one way or the other. "I intend to seek a vote on this amendment next week so every senator is on the record," he said, asking his fellow senators: "Do you support free speech or do you want to silence voices you disagree with?'
Although the D.C. Voting Rights Act is the first item on the Senate's legislative calendar when it reconvenes next week, staffers for DeMint were unsure whether Reid would allow any amendments to the legislation. But a press spokesman for Reid said that the bill would be open for amendments from the floor.
The Senate resumes business Monday at 2:00 p.m., and is set to consider both the D.C. Voting Rights Act and the nomination of Representative Hilda Solis, D-Calif., as Secretary of Labor.