Senator Seeks Political Ad Disclosures Through Current FCC Rule

Florida's Bill Nelson cites 'true identity' phrasing to pursue clearer view of ad backers

Senator Seeks Political Ad Disclosures Through Current FCC Rule
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

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.