FEC Rejects Club’s Bid to Tweak Disclosure Rules

Posted July 28, 2008 at 6:18pm

The recently reshaped Federal Election Commission met for the first time on Monday, unanimously denying a Club for Growth request to shorten advertising disclosures that accompany political advertisements on television.

In a 6-0 decision, the agency’s commissioners said the law provides no wiggle room to tweak the language of “stand-by-your-ad” disclosures political action committees must insert at the end of their television spots — in the Club for Growth’s case, language that could take up one-third of the proposed 10-second television commercial.

“The statute is pretty clear,” new Republican Commissioner Matthew Petersen said during Monday’s meeting. “The case on practicality grounds is a good one, but it runs headlong into the statute.”

Petersen, fellow Republicans Caroline Hunter and Don McGahn, and Democrats Cynthia Bauerly and Steven Walther appeared with Democrat Ellen Weintraub, a holdover commissioner, at the new panel’s first public hearing on Monday.

A six-month standoff between Senate Democrats and the White House ended in late June, putting the backlogged elections regulator back in business with just about 120 days until the November elections.

According to campaign finance law, political action committees must state in radio and television ads that boost or trash a candidate that their group “is responsible for the content of this advertising.” In television ads, PACs must also disclose in writing their “full name and permanent street address, telephone number, or World Wide Web address of the person who paid for the communication, and that the communication is not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”

But last November, the Club for Growth’s PAC asked the FEC — presumably to get more bang for its buck by airing shorter, cheaper ads — if it could do away with the spoken disclaimer or, at least, substitute a “truncated” spoken disclaimer, “Paid for by the Club for Growth PAC.”

“Because these ads will not air for 30 or 60 seconds (as do the majority of political ads), however, Club PAC wishes to dispense with the duplicative disclaimers,” the group wrote to the agency on Nov. 15, 2007. “While Club PAC is certainly proud to stand by its ads, it also wants to get its message out in the very limited time that it has.”

The campaign finance reform community criticized the Club for Growth’s request late last year, writing that “the statute is abundantly clear” and that “the commission has no basis upon which to conclude otherwise” on the rigid language required in radio and television spots.

“Not only did Congress establish general disclaimer requirement for all political committee communications, but Congress took special care to explicitly require an additional spoken disclaimer for political committee television and radio ads, like those the Club intends to run,” Democracy 21 Executive Director Fred Wertheimer and Campaign Legal Center Executive Director Gerry Hebert wrote to the agency. “The Supreme Court has upheld these statutory requirements as constitutional … the clarity of the statute leaves no doubt.”

Right after the closing gavel at Monday’s meeting, the Campaign Legal Center — which routinely asks lawmakers to scrap the FEC — applauded the agency’s unanimous rejection of the Club for Growth’s request. Even more, writing on the group’s blog after the decision, FEC Program Director Paul Ryan also appeared to give new Chairman McGahn, whose nomination his group opposed, a nod of approval for setting aside his First Amendment concerns with the law.

“The Commission today correctly rejected this argument, noting the abundant clarity of the governing statute, which, on its face, encompasses all broadcast ads,” Ryan wrote Monday. “Although Chairman McGahn, for example, noted that he would prefer a different policy result for Club for Growth PAC’s request, federal statute mandates the application of the disclaimer requirements and the Commission is duty bound to apply and enforce the statute.”

The Center for Competitive Politics, a libertarian campaign finance group, denounced Monday’s ruling, arguing that it “simply raises the cost of advertising.”

“The redundant ‘stand by your ad’ requirements needlessly reduce the amount of time that citizen groups can spend communicating with their fellow citizens,” Center for Competitive Politics President Sean Parnell said in a statement on Monday. “Instead of substantive political messages like ‘no taxation without representation,’ citizens are left to hear that the organization paying for the ad, in fact, approves of it.”

The commission on Monday also ruled 5-1 that the law firm Holland & Knight LLP, a partnership, must adhere to federal contribution limits and not underwrite more than $5,000 in administration costs for its PAC.