Democrats tried to pass legislation, the Disclose Act, to uncover major political donors, but Senate Republicans blocked the bill in 2010.
Of the five FCC commissioners, only Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, expressed enthusiasm about the novel use of FCC power to force political disclosure. She said the FCC should review its rules and require that ads be as "transparent as they need to be."
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski emphasized that the FCC enacted rules last year requiring TV stations to post data about political ads online. But the FCC's order does not reveal any new information about the donors behind the groups.
Robert McDowell, a Republican commissioner, expressed concern that the Federal Election Commission might be a more appropriate agency to handle political disclosure issues and that the FCC shouldn't use broadcasters to enforce disclosure requirements.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) applauded Nelson for bringing up the issue of political disclosure and said it goes to "the root of democracy."
In a statement earlier this month, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) also urged the FCC to use its power to require more political disclosure.
But during the hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) argued that the Disclose Act was designed to help Democrats win elections and would harm free speech.
He warned the commissioners that if they tried to do an "end-run" around Congress on the issue, they could "undermine the integrity of the commission and imperil the independence of the commission."