House Republicans move to block FCC’s political ad rule

House appropriators voted Wednesday along party lines to block a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation that would require television stations to disclose political ad buyers online.

Republicans included a provision to spike the FCC rule in the 2013 Financial Services spending bill that passed out of subcommittee Wednesday. GOP appropriators voted down an attempt from Democrats to remove it from the bill.  

Democrats accused Republicans on the House Appropriations Financial Services subcommittee of acting to keep the names and spending of outside “fat cats” secret in an attempt to hide their influence on elections. 

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“It is obvious what this is all about and it is embarrassing, frankly,” said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee. “It looks like you are trying to cover up the fact that these fat cats are coming into these elections and they don’t want their names known.”

The FCC in April voted to require major network affiliates in the top 50 TV markets to post information about their political ads online. The rule would apply to all broadcast stations after the first two years. 

The files about political ad purchases are currently available to anyone who travels to the television stations to view physical copies of the documents. The new rule requires the information to be posted online as well. 

Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) offered an amendment to strip out the language blocking the ad rule. He said the FCC decision is important because it brings more transparency to spending on issue ads, and for ads in state and local races that is not easy to track under Federal Election Commission requirements.

Serrano’s amendment was defeated in a party-line vote of 4 to 8.

Republicans offered a variety of reasons for imposing the restrictions on the FCC.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) said that the requirement was burdensome to local television stations. She cited a station manager who told her he would have to hire a new staff member to post the information to the Internet.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said it was an instance of the federal government interfering with the private sector. 

“Television station fiscal matters are private and should be kept private,” he said.

He also said he does not want his political opponent knowing his reelection strategy. 

Emerson and Democrats, however, said campaign media buyers are already given access to the cost and sponsors of opponent ads.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said that the information was already available, that putting it online did not change things, and that Democratic regulations were “destroying” the economy.

The political ad rule has been strongly opposed by the broadcasting industry.

The National Association of Broadcasters has sued the FCC over the rule, arguing it is “arbitrary and capricious.” The group argues it is unfair to impose requirements on broadcast television that don't apply to competitors in cable and satellite. 

But Free Press, a public advocacy group that supports the FCC's rule, accused House lawmakers of catering to the broadcasting industry at the expense of political transparency.

"Some members of Congress, working at the behest of the broadcast industry, want to keep the public in the dark," said Corie Wright, senior policy counsel of the Free Press Action Fund, in a statement.   

The Financial Services bill heads now to the full House Appropriations panel and then to the floor. It is based on a lower overall budget allocation than a similar bill in the Senate, and will not become law without extensive negotiation.

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