A new federal rule would give the public online access to detailed information on who is paying how much for political ads in the nation's top TV markets as the 2012 election season heats up. Supporters say such information is crucial for tracking independent campaign spending in the post-Citizens United age of super PACs, but House Republicans want those records to stay where they are: buried as hard copies in broadcast station offices where they are only available to those who show up in person to dig them up.
Last week, House Republicans in an appropriations subcommittee won a party-line vote to approve a policy rider that would block the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from requiring TV broadcasters to post files detailing political ad buys on their web sites. Several of the GOP lawmakers have received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in recent years from broadcasting groups opposed to the rule.
The House Republicans argued that the new rule, approved in April by the FCC chairs in a 2-1 party-line vote, was too burdensome on local television stations and broadcasters should have the right to keep fiscal matters private.
Democrats on the subcommittee pointed out that the files are already publicly available as hard copies at broadcasting stations. Republicans rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-New York) defending the FCC rule.
The FCC would give smaller stations until the summer of 2014 to comply with the rule.
Special Interest Influence?
The National Association of Broadcasters, which recently sued the FCC to block the political ad file disclosure rule, has given a combined total of $22,000 to the Republicans on the subcommittee since 2007, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Subcommittee Chair and bill sponsor Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Missouri) and Rep. Steve Womack (R-Arkansas) receiving top contributions totaling $6,000 each.
The five Democrats of the committee who opposed blocking the FCC rule received a combined total of $4,500, with top contribution totals at $1,000.
Subcommittee member Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Florida) also received $6,000 in the past year from Broadcasting Media Partners, a lobbying group representing big media companies.
Corie Wright, senior policy counsel for the media reform group Free Press, which supports the new FCC rule, said it remains unclear where the policy rider came from, but such bits of legislation do not just appear from a vacuum.
"These kind of provisions that are so targeted don't just arise without input from the industry," Wright said. "The impetus of this has not been clear to me, and like I said, people don't want to take responsibility for it."
Wright said Emerson's name is on the policy rider, but it remains unclear which lawmaker actually wrote it. Emerson's Washington, DC, office did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout.
"If any member of Congress is willing to look a constituent in the eye and say they aren't for transparency ... then they are going to have an awkward time," Wright said.
During a hearing in February, Emerson grilled FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski over the TV ad file rule, implying the proposed rule had political implications, according to an Adweek report.
"Why do you care about this?" Emerson asked. "You have more important things to worry about. Why in the world is this a big priority?"
Protecting Super PAC Spending
With super PACs already spending millions of dollars on TV ad buys, House Appropriations Committee ranking member Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Washington) was blunt about why he suspects his GOP colleagues attached such a specific policy rider to a bill providing funding to the FCC.
"It is obvious what this is all about and it is embarrassing, frankly," Dicks said last week. "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."
Republicans in the Senate may introduce companion legislation as early as this week, Wright said.
A broad GOP move to block the FCC rule could result in partisan squabbling over the virtues of Citizens United v. FEC, a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allowed individuals and corporations to make unlimited campaign donations to super PACs and other groups. Republican candidates largely benefited from super PAC spending in the 2010 elections.
The legislation blocking the FCC's rule on political ad could pass in the House, but is likely to face opposition from the Democratic majority in the Senate and the White House.