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House committee restores funding for political ad disclosure

by Keenan Steiner and Breanna Edwards

A key member of Congress bowed to pressure Wednesday and withdrew a measure aimed at blocking online disclosure of political advertisements. 

At a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., announced she was pulling a measure she introduced two weeks ago to defund a new rule that the Federal Communications Commission approved in April. The rule, now awaiting final approval by the White House Office of Management and Budget, would require the nation's biggest broadcast networks to put information about who is buying political ads on the Internet. The National Association of Broadcasters is suing to prevent the rule from taking effect.

That information is currently required to be made public but with rare exceptions, voters must rummage through television station filing cabinets to get it.

Emerson, chairwoman of the financial services and general government appropriations subcommittee, reversed course after objections from her Democratic colleagues, led by the subcommittee's top-ranking Democrat, Rep. Jose Serrano of New York.

"I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issues surrounding the poltical file and if I had known in advance how important this was to my good friend Joe Serrano, I think he knows I would have worked with him for the subcommittee markup," she said.

During that markup, Emerson's measure set off a heated debate, with Republican lawmakers arguing that there is no need to put the political files online because they are already public and that doing so merely imposes a cost on broadcasters -- an argument that the FCC explicitly rejected in issuing the rule.

As she withdrew her measure -- a move approved by a voice vote -- Emerson acknowledged that it would have not taken effect in time for this election because it would have applied to the FCC's 2013 budget.

In its place, Emerson is requiring the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the financial impact on broadcasters of placing the ad rate information online, and whether there is any duplication of election reporting between the FCC and Federal Election Commission. She is also requiring the FCC to say how it would implement the  a GAO report.

But she still is not convinced of the need for online disclosure of political ad files.

"I find it somewhat perplexing that the FCC is getting mixed up in federal election disclosure matters and placing the burden on private broadcasters." She said she is particularly concerned about burdens on small, "mom and pop" broadcasters in rural America.

This year, the new FCC rule would apply only to affiliates of the four largest broadcast networks -- Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC -- in the nation's 50 biggest markets. After two years it would apply to all broadcasters. The parent companies of these very stations pushed hard against the FCC in an attempt to block the rule. The stations' trade association, the National Association of Broadcasters, denied lobbying Emerson for her measure. 

Serrano and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the top-ranking Democrat on the full Appropriations Committee, applauded Emerson's reversal.

"I just think there was a concern by the public and by our side that there was an unwillingness to let this information be out in the public domain and I'm glad we got it corrected," Dicks said.

Serrano added: "At any time that you can say to the public: You can get information on how our elections are being conducted, who is paying for them, what kind of money is being spent, that's a good thing. It's good for democracy so this is a good move."

Free Press, a media reform group, thanked Serrano and Dicks in a statement. The Sunlight Foundation is partnering with Free Press and a number of other open government and journalism groups to get the political files online.

"Voters deserve to know who is trying to influence their choice on Election Day, and the FCC's online political file rule will shine a brighter light on that process," wrote Free Press attorney Corie Wright.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., credited the resolution of the dispute to bipartisan negotiations among the panel's members.