Will the FCC Do the Right Thing?
We already know we can’t rely on the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce our campaign finance laws any time soon. We also know President Obama is in no rush to replace the five commissioners whose terms have expired and appoint new ones with a basic commitment to enforcing the campaign finance laws as written by Congress and interpreted by the courts. But maybe the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will deliver some sorely needed sanity to this wild west of an election season riddled with secret spending.
Tomorrow the FCC will vote on a proposal to make local television stations post information about political advertising on a central website. This is a great proposal that CREW strongly supports. With so much secret political spending by shadowy outside groups flooding our airwaves, it is more important than ever that we have some information regarding the identities of those who are trying to influence our votes. Broadcasters already are required to keep “public inspection files” that we can theoretically access. In addition to information on children’s programing and agreements with other stations to share services, these files include the names of all those who buys political ads along with how much they paid when the ads ran.
But the files are kept in file cabinets available only at each individual network station. This makes the files accessible only through an arduous and time-consuming process of walking into the station and rifling through reams of documents under the watchful eyes of a station supervisor. Converting these files into pdf documents posted online available to anyone with computer access would dramatically increase the light on political spending.
Like so many things in Washington these days, the decision to make these allegedly publicly available documents online seems like a no brainer. But the National Association of Broadcasters, a powerful special interest group, has fought tooth and nail too keep these files virtually hidden. Why? Some have suggested it is because if broadcasters are required to make such information easily available online for all to see, the public will finally learn in almost real-time the rates those broadcasters are charging political candidates. Candidates are supposed to be charged the lowest customary rates as a condition of their monopoly of the airwaves, but broadcasters are notorious for demanding outrageous prices, particularly close to elections. Because the prices are virtually kept under lock and key, candidates have no idea they are being bilked.
Unlike the FEC, which is mired in deadlock after deadlock because of the 3-3 partisan divide, the FCC is composed of three commissioners, thwarting any possibility of a deadlock. Chairman Julius Genachowski – the main backer of the proposal – is rightly enthusiastic about making political spending transparent for the public interest. Commissioner Robert McDowell, unfortunately, has already indicated he’s backing the broadcasters, thereby keeping the public in the dark. That means all eyes are on Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who recently told the broadcast industry her office is still open to compromise.
Approving this rule to require TV stations to post political advertising data online is not a panacea, but it will be a valuable tool allowing the public and good governance groups like CREW to keep an eye on who is spending money to influence our elections. We’ll let you know what happens tomorrow.