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Yarmuth, Eshoo to FCC: Unmask Secret Sponsors of Political Ads

January 20th, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C.—On the eve of the anniversary of one of the most corrosive decisions to U.S. democracy by the Supreme Court—Citizens United—Energy and Commerce Committee Members John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) are leading 168 House Democrats requesting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase transparency in U.S. elections. In a letter today to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, they state that the Commission has failed to exercise its authority under existing law to require the disclosure of the true sponsors of political ads.

The Members wrote: “We write to respectfully request that you ensure the full disclosure of the sponsors of political advertisements, as required by Section 317 of the Communications Act of 1934. In today’s political reality of non-stop campaigning, our system continues to fail the American people by allowing special interests and shadow groups to flood our airwaves with anonymous ads with no disclosure whatsoever. We believe the Federal Communications Commission has the responsibility and legal authority to require disclosure of the actual donors behind these ads.”

Section 317 of the Communications Act of 1934 requires broadcasters to disclose the “true identity” of political ad sponsors on air during the ad. The Members point to a 1979 staff interpretation of the law currently utilized by the FCC as being outdated in a campaign climate dominated by anonymous donors and virtually limitless sums of money from special interests. The staff interpretation deems disclosure of just the organization with “editorial control” to meet the requirements of the law, creating a major loophole for benignly named nonprofit groups to hide the true identity of their sponsors.

Experts are estimating the 2016 presidential campaigns could generate a record $10 billion in spending, including a sizeable portion of money for advertisements backed by front groups who keep their donors secret.

A 2013 Government Accountability Office report commissioned by Congresswoman Eshoo confirmed the FCC’s authority to require more meaningful disclosure of the sponsors of on-air advertisements, including political advertisements.

Eshoo and Yarmuth have co-introduced legislation requiring the FCC to fully enforce the 1934 law.

They concluded in a joint statement: “The lack of transparency in politics is harming our democracy, breeding even more mistrust in government, and depressing voter participation. The public has a right to know who is trying to influence their vote over the public airwaves and the FCC should honor that right.”

The text of the letter follows:

January 20, 2016

The Honorable Tom Wheeler, Chairman
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20554

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

We write to respectfully request that you ensure the full disclosure of the sponsors of political advertisements, as required by Section 317 of the Communications Act of 1934. In today’s political reality of non-stop campaigning, our system continues to fail the American people by allowing special interests and shadow groups to flood our airwaves with anonymous ads, with no disclosure whatsoever. We believe the Federal Communications Commission has the responsibility and legal authority to require disclosure of the actual donors behind these ads.

Section 317 and the associated FCC regulations require broadcasters to ensure that the “true identity” of the sponsors of political advertisements be disclosed on the air during the ad. However, for decades the FCC has failed to engage in any meaningful enforcement of Section 317. This is because the FCC currently enforces these regulations under a staff interpretation from 1979 which deems the organization that claims “editorial control” over the ad to be the true sponsor. In the new era of non-disclosing political organizations with intentionally opaque names, this interpretation is woefully out of date. While a non-disclosing organization may in fact have had editorial control over the advertisement, the true sponsors of the advertisement are those who contributed the money to pay for it.

An overwhelming majority of the American public believe that groups spending money to influence our elections should be required to publically release their donors. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld disclosure requirements. In fact, the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions both discuss the importance of disclosure to protect the public from corruption, real or perceived. Strong enforcement of Section 317 will ensure a level of honesty currently missing from campaign discourse and improve transparency in our political system.

We therefore urge you to use the statutory authority granted to you in the Communications Act to require disclosure of the true sponsors of political advertisements so that the American public knows exactly who is trying to influence them over the public airwaves.

We thank you in advance for your cooperation and we look forward to your timely response.

Sincerely,

A copy of the letter can be found here.

The list of co-signatories can be found here.

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