Today a House subcommittee voted to defund a Federal Communications Commission initiative announced in April that would provide online access to spending for political ads on some local television stations. In the current election cycle, outside spending has already reached record levels, more than doubling what was spent as of the same date in 2008.
The provision, inserted into the financial services appropriations bill, would add to the uncertainty around the FCC's political ad disclosure rule, which is in limbo. The National Association of Broadcasters, a group that represents the major broadcast media companies, sued the FCC to try to block it two weeks ago. The Office of Management and Budget has yet to approve the rule, which at the earliest would not go into effect until next month.
FCC rules require television and radio broadcasters to maintain, as part of their public files, records of all political ads purchased, including those bought by politicians, parties and outside groups. Currently, to get access to the public file, citizens must go to the stations to sift through them. The FCC rule would require the four biggest broadcast stations in the nation's 50 biggest markets to give that information to the FCC to put online.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., chair of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, sponsored the bill, which passed the panel by voice vote today and now moves to markup by the full committee. A markup date has not yet been scheduled.
The bill says that no funds from the appropriations bill may be used by the FCC to put the political files online.
There was an effort to block the provision led the ranking member, Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., but that effort failed along party lines, 4-8, with Democrats voting for it, in the closed door hearing.
In the hearing, the Republicans argued that there was no reason to put the ad files online because they are already public, according to Serrano. It added an extra cost, they argued. That was the argument put forward by the National Association of Broadcasters to try to block the FCC rule.
Serrano argued the opposite. "It's cheaper these days to go digital than to keep paper files," Serrano said.
At a public hearing about the rule, the FCC found that it took staffers 61 hours to obtain information from eight local TV stations in Baltimore, and a copying bill of $1,700.
Usually he understands the other side's political or philosophical reasons to put something in a bill, he said, but not in this case.
"This one, I scratch my head," he added.
Emerson grilled FCC chairman Julius Genachowski over the issue at a panel hearing in March. "Why do you care about this? You have more important things to worry about. Why in the world is this a big priority?" Adweek reported.
Emerson's office has yet responded to phone calls and an email asking why the measure was put forward.
Free Press, a media reform group, suspected that the NAB was behind the measure. "Some members of Congress, working at the behest of the broadcast industry, want to keep the public in the dark. The FCC's online political file rules will shine a brighter light on the political ads that have inundated local airwaves this year," said Free Press attorney Corie Wright in a statement.
A broadcasting industry source denied that the broadcasters' trade group had pushed for the measure.
The National Association of Broadcasters is a lobbying powerhouse—the 14th biggest spending organization on lobbying so far this year at over $4 million. That’s up from 18th place last year, at nearly $14 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It also has given over $9 million to Republicans and Democrats over the years since 1989, making them the 118th biggest giver in that period.
Emerson, one of the highest ranking members on the Appropriations panel, is one of the bigger House recipients of this campaign cash this election cycle, at $3,500. Still, NAB has given dozens of members more campaign money than her. In her career, she’s received $7,500 from NAB’s PAC, according to Influence Explorer.
Serrano has received $1,500 from the NAB’s PAC, including $1,000 last year.
Serrano and three other Democrats—Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., and Norm Dicks, D-Wash.–voted to strip the defunding measure. Meanwhile, Emerson, Rodney Alexander, R-La., Jo Bonner, R-Ala., Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., Tom Graves, R-Ga., Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., Steve Womack, R-Ark., and Hal Rogers, R-Ky., voted against it. Rogers, the chair of the Appropriations Committee, where the bill goes next, has received over $27,000 from the NAB's PAC and employees over the years.
Serrano says the subcommittee bill, as it has in past years, will likely get tucked away with other bills so it is not debated alone on the House floor. But, he said, as the measure moves to full committee, he and other will make noise about it.
"As the process goes on, this will be one of the tough issues," he said.
Meanwhile, even if the FCC rule goes forward, many ads will remain undisclosed.
Full disclosure: The Sunlight Foundation, which lobbied for the FCC rule, has been asking for participants in Wisconsin to help unlock those files.