FCC Political Ad Disclosure Rule Passes OMB Hurdle

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The White House Office of Management and Budget has approved the FCC rule that requires broadcasters to provide online information about who is buying airtime for political ads. The OMB determined that the FCC mandate was not in violation of a law that reduces paperwork in government — as broadcasters claimed — and gave the green light to the FCC.

screenshot from the report by Cleveland journalism students digging up campaign ad data at their local TV stations

Kent State journalism students dig up campaign ad data at their local TV stations.

Open government proponents are enthusiastic about the new rule because it will make information about political ad buys more widely available to the public. Previously, television stations were required to keep paper files of the information and make them available on request. The only way the public could review and share the information was by visiting stations and photocopying the files — sometimes at an exorbitant cost. (In response to a plea from Bill Moyers asking journalism students to “free the files” from their local affiliates, a group of enterprising Kent State students videotaped their experience at several TV stations in Cleveland.)

The Sunlight Foundation says that the OMB notified the FCC at the end of last week, but the rule has not yet been entered into the Federal Register. That’s important because the rule only goes into effect 30 days after it is published — and no one knows for certain when that might be. The Sunlight Foundation blog reports that “the FCC is not commenting publicly before the rule is published.”

Once the regulation comes into effect, stations would start sending copies of their political file to the FCC to post online in a portal.

Among other things, that would allow voters to learn at least some information about nonprofit groups, which now can spend money in unlimited amounts to influence elections without registering with the Federal Election Commission.

It’s still unclear whether the data will be uploaded in this election year. Opponents of the rule have been throwing hurdles in its way since the FCC approved it in late April. Three weeks ago an appropriations subcommittee in the House tried to block the rule by slipping a rider that stripped its funding into a draft budget. After coming under fire from Democrats who said the “GOP was trying to hide ‘fat cat’ political donations” in an election year, the committee dropped the amendment and replaced it with a new one requiring a study of the rule’s impact by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Meanwhile, the National Association of Broadcasters filed a lawsuit against the FCC in late May. NAB claims the rule would hinder competition, placing broadcasters in a weaker negotiating position with regard to ad rates and forcing them to hire new staff because of the extra work required to put the data online. The lawsuit is in a preliminary stage and no decisions have been handed down since the initial filing. Last week, Free Press and five other pro-transparency groups petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals to uphold the FCC rule.

Take Action

The Sunlight Foundation and its partners are planning to collect all the documents that TV broadcasters upload to the FEC into a searchable database in the fall. If you are interested in helping them with this project, visit their Political Ad Sleuth website.

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