Lawmaker questions FCC rule on political ads

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Broadcasters are already required to keep records on political spending on advertising, but the proposed rule would require that the television stations load the information onto an online database.

Emerson noted her campaign staffers are already able to obtain data on the spending of her political opponent and outside groups.

"I'm confused — is there a problem that we're trying to correct?" she asked.

Genachowski said the proposal is part of the commission's effort to increase transparency and put more data online. He said the proposed rule would allow academics, journalists and members of the general public to more easily find out which groups are buying political ads and how much they're spending.

"In the 21st century, the question is if common sense says to put that information online," he said.

The FCC is still accepting comments on the proposal, and Genachowski said he would take a close look at the public's input before voting on the measure.

But Robert McDowell, a Republican FCC commissioner, said the proposed rule strays from the FCC's core mission and would burden broadcasters.

He said the FCC is moving forward with the proposal "with little to no evidence that candidates, their representatives, or members of the local communities served by broadcasters have been unable to access the required information, let alone that the benefits would outweigh the costs." 

He estimated the requirement would cost broadcasters $15 million in upfront costs and an additional $140,000 per year to maintain the database.

McDowell said the Federal Election Commission is the appropriate agency to deal with political transparency and the proposal seems to be "mission creep" on the part of the FCC.

In a written statement submitted to the congressional panel, McDowell also questioned whether the proposal is constitutional.

"Administrative agencies and Congress alike should think carefully before imposing new laws and regulations that could be construed by the Court as de facto, or 'backdoor,' inhibitions on political speech," McDowell said, pointing to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, which loosened restrictions on corporate campaign spending.

But Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) defended the proposal and said broadcasters should be required to post the data even if it costs them money. He noted that Congress pays to stream its hearings online to increase transparency.

"We should know who is paying for political ads," Serrano said.

— This story was updated at 4:50 p.m.