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Vote on Campaign Ad Data Renews Lobbying Fight

When a House Appropriations subcommittee voted this week to block funding for a new Federal Communications Commission program that would require broadcasters to post campaign ad data online, watchdogs quickly blamed the National Association of Broadcasters.

The association was a logical target. The NAB has long opposed the FCC rule, has sued to block it and has donated $7,000 since 2010 to Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government. (The group’s contributions were tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics.)

The subcommittee on Wednesday inserted a provision into a draft financial services spending bill that bars the FCC from using any of the funds to implement its new disclosure program. Approved in April, the rule would require major broadcasters to post details about the political ads that they air online. Broadcasters must already report this information, but only on paper. Those records may be accessed only in person at individual stations around the country.

But the NAB had nothing to do with the subcommittee’s FCC amendment, said Dennis Wharton, the association’s executive vice president for media relations.

“NAB has not lobbied on this issue,” Wharton said. “It’s no secret that we disagreed with having the rule only apply to broadcasting and that we are seeking a court review.”

Emerson herself questioned FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski sharply about the disclosure rule at a subcommittee hearing in March, declaring, “You have more important things to worry about.”

The appropriations subcommittee’s move to block funding for the program has revived a lobbying battle intensified by the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling to lift restrictions on political money. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has unleashed millions of dollars in undisclosed, unrestricted expenditures, argue public interest activists who ginned up thousands of petition signatures to the FCC on the eve of its April ruling.

The Free Press Action Fund, a media reform organization, sent an alert this week to its 500,000 members urging them to sign a letter to Members of Congress “to demand that they serve the public and not media lobbyists.” The Sunlight Foundation and the Campaign Legal Center, two groups that had joined to push for the FCC rule, also decried the subcommittee’s action.

Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, sought to block the FCC provision without success. Serrano said he will continue to press for an amendment to block the measure when the funding bill reaches the full Appropriations Committee and also when it reaches the House floor.

“In the society we live in now, if you say to me tomorrow, I’m going to make my blog or article public, that’s understood as it’s going to be online,” Serrano said in an interview. “That’s what public means today. Public cannot be in somebody’s file cabinet.”

In their legal challenge to the FCC, which the NAB filed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last month, broadcasters counter that the rule is arbitrary and capricious because it does not apply to cable, satellite and internet providers, who are not required to disclose ad rates to their competitors.

“All of those platforms accept political advertising,” Wharton said. “But only television broadcasting is singled out for this new rule.”

Ambreen Ali contributed to this report.

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