Push to name donors in political ads hits FCC roadblock

Push to name donors in political ads hits FCC roadblock
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Congressional Democrats' push to strengthen political ad disclosures in time for the 2016 elections appears dead for now after hitting a roadblock at the Federal Communications Commission.

Amid a divisive legal battle over new net neutrality rules and other pressing telecommunications issues at the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler suggested the commission has little appetite to take up a fix on its own.

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"Maybe you noticed — we have a long list of difficult telecommunications related decisions that we are dealing with right now. And that will be our focus," Wheeler said last week when asked if the commission would initiate new rules on its own.

Billions of dollars are expected to pour into the 2016 elections, and Democrats have pressed the FCC to update its rules to require large donors to be identified at the end of television ads purchased by super-PACs and other outside groups.

Lawmakers in both chambers have introduced bills to force the agency's hand and Wheeler, a Democrat, noted he would "clearly follow" any mandate from Congress.

But the title of the House proposal — which overtly references GOP mega-donors Charles and David Koch — indicates that the party sees it as more of a messaging bill than anything else. And a failed vote on the legislation in a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee last week confirmed that the proposal would not be able to get past Republican opposition.

"This isn’t the place for it. If you want to do campaign finance reform, there are other committees of jurisdiction," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who leads the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Convincing Wheeler to move alone appeared to be the only avenue ahead of 2016. That has always been a tough sell. His Democratic predecessor, Julius Genachowski, also expressed reservations about an update when he led the commission.

Nonetheless, lawmakers and advocates said they would keep the pressure on the agency.  

"Clearly we have more work to do in convincing the FCC of the urgency of this situation," said Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthDemocratic lawmaker calls Trump a 'moron' for his handling of Iran Democrats not keen to reignite Jerusalem embassy fight Pelosi slated to deliver remarks during panel hearing on poverty MORE (D-Ky.), who sponsored the House legislation. "The lack of transparency in politics is eroding our democracy, and they have the power to act."

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has been a strong advocate for the update. He has hoped the push could strike a chord with the public, similar to the recent net neutrality debate and an aborted merger between telecommunications giants Comcast and Time Warner.

"Will it set off a hot debate? Yes," he said. "The open Internet set off a hot debate, Comcast-Time Warner set off a hot debate, community broadband set off a hot debate. You don't make progress without taking on the tough issues."

He predicted the issue would be increasingly difficult for the commission "to evade and avoid." But it remains to be seen if campaign finance can captivate the public. Only 2 percent named electoral reform as the most important issue facing the country in a recent Gallup poll.  

The debate has been ongoing for years with little progress.

When Democrats controlled both chambers in 2010, they narrowly failed to approve the Disclose Act, which would have required the donor disclosures at the end of ads, among other things.

Democrats have since pointed to a section of the Communications Act that governs how the sponsors of political ads have to be identified. A section requires ads to “fully and fairly disclose the true identity of the person or persons, or corporation, committee, association or other unincorporated group” that bought the airtime.

"While a nonprofit organization designed to conceal its donors may technically claim it has editorial control over an advertisement, the true sponsors of the advertisement are those who put up the money to pay for it," Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said in an op-ed last week.

Currently, rules require super-PACs and other outside groups to include a sponsorship announcement that lasts at least four seconds at the beginning or end of a television ad.

For example, a super-PAC supporting Mitt Romney in 2012, called Restore Our Future, included audio and text at the end of its 30-second spots. The audio and text informed viewers that the group — and not a candidate — was responsible for the ad, and included a Web link for more information. Priorities USA, a super-PAC supporting President Obama, did the same.

Democrats, however, say those disclosures are based on a weak interpretation of the law. They say the sponsorship tags are of no real use to voters, who likely have no idea who is funding groups with generic names like Restore our Future, Priorities USA, or the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity.

A Senate bill would force the FCC to update its sponsorship rules to require “more detailed information about the identity of the true sponsors,” while the House bill would require the ads to display the “names of significant donors."

A 2013 Government Accountability Office report notes the FCC ad rules have gone largely unchanged for nearly 50 years and should be updated “to address more modern technologies and applications.” But the report does not reference the proliferation of outside spending as a reason for an update.  

Skeptics of the change ask if the FCC is the right agency to be regulating political donor disclosures, as opposed to the Federal Election Commission. They also ask if broadcasters should be on the hook for enforcing those disclosures. Others point to the practical considerations of naming a list of donors at the end of ads, which tend to run only about 30 seconds.

"And then this whole reporting requirement, what’s a significant contributor?" Walden asked reporters last week. "This would apply from city council races on up, so if you’ve got a 30-second radio ad and you’ve got [to] list all the names of the donors — as defined by who?"