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Senator: FCC Can Compel Political Ad Donor Disclosure

The hundreds of millions of dollars that flowed to stations in last
year’s elections included a hefty chunk from groups with generic names,
but Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) pressed the FCC on Tuesday on why the
agency couldn’t force such political advertisers to feature the names of
their funders.

While efforts to pass legislation that would mandate extensive
disclosure of names  in campaign finance, Nelson suggested that existing
law could give the FCC the power to force such a reveal when ad spots
air on TV. The flood of ads coming from outside groups last year often
identified funders only by generic names like Americans for Prosperity
and American Crossroads.

Nelson said that such patriotic-sounding names were an attempt to
“hide” the funders, and was a violation of a congressionally mandated
FCC rule that ads “fully and fairly disclose the true identity” of the
sponsors.

Nelson’s made the comments at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing of
all five FCC commissioners. Chairman Julius Genachowski told Nelson, “It
is something we should look at” but also noted last year that the
agency implemented rules requiring that stations post information online
disclosing a campaign’s ad buys.

Commissioner Robert McDowell said there was a an issue as to whether
it should be the FCC or the Federal Election Commission that mandates
such disclosure.

After the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision in 2010,
attempts at reform of campaign finance have largely stalled out in
Congress, while some lawmakers have expressed frustration at the
ever-increasing flow of money in politics.

The wide-ranging hearing on Tuesday touched on plans for the FCC to
hold incentive auctions, by which broadcasters could put their spectrum
up for bid for wireless use. The auction is planned for next year,
although broadcasters caution that the FCC is carrying out the
complicated process too quickly.

Nevertheless, all five commissioners expressed a desire Tuesday to
move forward, and Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller
(D-W.Va.) said that “acting expeditiously is important” so that funds
can be raised to create a new broadband emergency response network.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) raised the frustrations of
constituents regarding sports blackout rules, but Genachowski noted that
a particular issue is when major sporting events are pulled in the
midst of retransmission-consent negotiations.

Although cable operators have urged the agency to take some action to
prevent such blackouts, the FCC has declined to pursue rules that would
dictate whether programming can be withheld during retrans
negotiations. On Tuesday, however, Genachowski said that “it may be time
to update” those provisions.

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