The Senate Sees Red

Republicans have taken back the Senate for the first time since George W. Bush was president, but not with the two-thirds majority that would allow them to, among other potential agenda items, block the FCC’s reimposition of network neutrality rules.

FCC Democratic chairman Tom Wheeler will continue to set the commission’s agenda, but there will almost certainly be more pushback from the Hill. “The FCC is an independent agency and [the chairman] is an aggressive guy so he’ll do what he thinks is best,” says a top communications lawyer speaking not for attribution.

The Republicans will be picking the chairmen on Senate committees overseeing communications, setting a more deregulatory agenda, scheduling hearings, and be able to launch investigations, issue subpoenas and otherwise make it tougher on policies and agencies they disagree with.

It was unclear whether the total Senate seat count for the GOP would be 52, 53 or 54. That will be determined by the absentee ballot count in the re-election race of the Commerce Committee’s own Mark Begich (the Alaska Democrat was 8,000 votes behind and had not conceded at press time), and a run-off in Louisiana, where the Republican, Bill Cassidy, is predicted to oust incumbent Democratic senator Mary Landrieu. That will mean even more political ad money spent in the run-up to the run-off next month.

The Republicans held the House, and picked up at least a dozen seats (“GOP Ready to Lead Victory 2014” T-shirts were being hawked on the RNC website post-election like sports championship team paraphernalia), with Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton (R- Mich.) and Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) winning handily, as did ranking Communications Subcommittee member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, is retiring.

Not returning is Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), a prominent member of the House Communications Subcommittee. He lost to Democrat Brad Ashford.

Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) is retiring and his seat was won by Republican Shelley Moore Capito, one of the pickups that helped the GOP take the Senate. Communications Subcommittee chairman Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) was also defeated by Republican Tom Cotton, yet another of those key seat switches.

Pryor and Rockefeller had pushed for retrans reform as part of the satellite re-authorization bill, though both ultimately recognized it would hold up the must-pass bill.

That also takes two Senators off the committee who were focused on content issues such as media violence.

With Rockefeller and Pryor gone, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) could become a more prominent figure on the Commerce Committee. He is former chair of the House Communications (formerly Telecommunications) subcommittee, and has been among the more active legislators on these issues, including network neutrality regs (he is a Title II fan), media consolidation and online privacy.

Open Internet rules will continue to have another strong champion in Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), though no longer from the bully pulpit of a chairmanship. He won far more handily than last time around, however. According to the Minnesota unofficial returns, Franken won by about 200,000 votes. In 2008, after months-long recounts and a state Supreme Court decision, Franken won by 312 votes.


The FCC is expected to grant a petition by Radio station owner Entercom, which wants to change its contest rules to allow radio and TV stations to put all that small-type, fast-talk explanation info online rather than on-air. Broadcasters would have to prominently display the Web address when advertising or promoting the contest online or otherwise ensure the public knows where to get access to the terms and conditions, but would then not have to fit it into a 30-second spot.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has scheduled a vote at the Nov. 21 meeting on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking billed as providing broadcasters “greater flexibility in their disclosure.”

A source familiar with the item says it is responsive to the Jan. 20, 2012 petition by Entercom, seeking that flexibility to use the Internet to explain the contest rules in a way that, it says, better reflects “how consumers access information in the 21st Century.” The FCC apparently agrees and is projected to approve the NPRM.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.