Democrats turn to FCC to unveil secret donors behind political ads

Leading House Democrats are calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use its existing authority to unveil the secret donors bankrolling political TV ads.

The Federal Election Commission is the agency that handles election regulations and disclosures, but the lawmakers say the FCC already has the power to require outside groups, like super-PACs, to reveal who is paying for the pricey, often negative ad campaigns that blanket the airwaves ahead of elections.

FCC regulations currently require TV broadcasters and cable providers to identify the "true sponsor" of all ads, whether they are commercial or political. The FCC rarely investigates or penalizes violations of the rule, however.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) argue that the "true sponsor" rule means that groups must state more than just a vague name, like "Americans for a Free America" on their ads—they must identify their major donors.

"The FCC must simply update its rules to reflect the law, ensuring disclosure in our elections, transparency in our campaigns, and fairness for all voters,” Pelosi said in a statement.

“The American people deserve to know when and by whom they are being persuaded – and it is the FCC’s job to ensure that they do,” Waxman said.

Eshoo argued that "it’s time for the FCC to play a crucial role in bringing greater transparency to America’s electoral system."

The three Democrats asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress's audit agency, to study the FCC's power on the issue.

The GAO released a report last Thursday examining the history of the FCC's sponsor-identification rules and recommending that the agency provide clearer guidance to TV stations.

The Democrats trumpeted the report, claiming that it showed the FCC has a legal obligation to enforce greater disclosure of political donors.

"This report makes clear that the FCC has the power, the authority, and the responsibility to shine a bright light on the organizations and campaigns behind our political advertisements," Pelosi said.

But the FCC does not appear eager to wade into controversial electoral regulations and denied that the report made any such recommendation.

"The report does not recommend that we change our rules relating to the sponsors of ads," an FCC spokesman said.

Mark Goldstein, the GAO's top researcher on the report, declined to say whether he believes the FCC has the legal power to require political groups to reveal their donors.

"The report mainly talked about how to clarify the regulations and how to ensure the investigations are handled more timely," Goldstein said. "We provided a broad discussion of what the sponsor-identification statutes and regulations are, principally of how they are overseen by the FCC."

The Democrats' bid to pressure the FCC to uncover political donors comes after they failed to pass the Disclose Act during previous sessions of Congress.

The bill would have required certain political groups to release the names of donors who have given more than $10,000. Democrats argued the Disclose Act was especially needed in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which ruled that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.

Republicans blocked the Disclose Act, arguing it would encourage the intimidation and harassment of people exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.