Bill Murchison

The Senate is expected this week to reject a new Federal Communications Commission rule expanding from 30 percent to 40 percent the number of households a single company can reach. Another FCC provision loosens the restraints in some markets on ownership of more than one local TV station. The House has voted overwhelmingly to overturn the rule. Senate approval will propel the measure restricting the FCC to President Bush's desk. Expect a veto, he says.

Hooray for that at least. The bill in question would keep electronic communications in a straitjacket that technology has made unfeasible and unwise. The pity is that a veto should be necessary for the right thing to get done.

The regulatory mentality somehow never dies. The supposition is that government possesses a wisdom far above individual wisdoms. The government knows what is best -- or, if not, it can find out.

Regulation was the hallmark of the '30s through the '60s: beneficent control exerted for the Good of All. In the '70s, the deficiencies of regulation became clearer and clearer, with respect to wage-price controls, energy and airlines. Control wasn't buying us happiness; it was creating distortions in economic endeavor. Political revolt ensued. The regulatory grip relaxed.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell proposed further to relax the grip. Last June 2, the FCC issued rules that would have taken effect this month if a federal appeals court had not stayed them. Now, the House and the Senate -- both controlled by Republicans of supposedly free-market bent -- are throwing up roadblocks.

There is something in all this of old Canute, the Viking king who, to demonstrate the limits of authoritarian government, took with him to the beach some of the more high-energy royalists at his court. There, before them, he commanded the tide to go back. Point made. The best-intentioned regulator deals with natural forces that to one degree or another, sooner or later, will have their way

Particular business interests affect to see the FCC rule as stifling competition and concentrating more and more power in the hands of fewer and fewer companies. That would be about the opposite of what is intended. Powell sees technology, especially the Internet, as having already undermined concentration and control. Think back to when we had just three networks: Now that was concentration! Not so today. The complaint, likelier, is that viewers and readers are in the driver's seat, telling the content suppliers what they want.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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