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Who Writes The Check? Group Wants Voters To Know

If you live in a political battleground state, you probably remember being bombarded last year by TV attack ads — including ads from Citizens for Strength and Security, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, and other vaguely named entities.

Advocates of transparency in political campaigns are still looking for a way to make public the sources of money behind those groups. On Tuesday, an advocacy organization called the Media Access Project will ask the Federal Communications Commission to impose new rules.

Concerned Taxpayers Of America

The proposed rules would by no means expose all the wallets that open every election year to finance ads. But they would catch the funders of an ad like one that ran last year against Democratic incumbent Rep. Peter DeFazio in Oregon.

"Politicians Nancy Pelosi and Peter DeFazio made a mess of our economy," the ad's narrator says. "Their policies aren't working. It's time for a change."

The ad had the usual disclaimer: "Concerned Taxpayers of America is responsible for this advertising."

But it turned out that Concerned Taxpayers was a million-dollar front group financed by just two guys — a Maryland businessman and the head of a New York hedge fund.

Andrew Schwartzman, policy director at the Media Access Project, says those two donors — not the Concerned Taxpayers of America — should have been named in the disclaimer. Federal communications law has been clear on this point since 1934, he says — but it's being misinterpreted.

Over the years, the FCC came to define sponsorship as editorial control. Schwartzman says the defining element should be the hard dollars.

"Broadcasters are already under an obligation to use reasonable diligence to identify the sponsor," he says. "It's just that the current rules don't require the sponsor to be identified in terms of who is writing the check."

The Role Of The FCC

On Tuesday, Schwartzman plans to ask the FCC to amend its regulations. He's likely to find some sympathy on the five-member commission.

In a speech last December, FCC commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, noted that the agency requires disclosure of paid product placements in TV shows.

"And that's fine, and I favor that," Copps said. "But shouldn't we be even more concerned when unidentified groups with off-screen agendas are attempting to buy election outcomes?"

Political disclosure usually is regarded as a matter of election law — something to be regulated by the Federal Election Commission or, in some cases, by the Internal Revenue Service. But last year, Republicans in Congress blocked passage of a big disclosure law.

And Schwartzman says the FCC has an indisputable role anyway, based on its own responsibilities. "These rules are designed to address individuals or corporations substantially funding a campaign and using the name of a front group to hide their involvement."

New rules would do that by telling broadcasters they must identify any source supplying 10 percent of a group's financing. That wouldn't touch the largest outside money groups, such as the American Future Fund and American Action Network, because they have so many donors that no single source would hit the 10 percent mark.

And there is also a chance the FCC will just tell Schwartzman to take a hike.

Craig Engle, a campaign finance lawyer who helped run several outside money groups last year, says the climate is all wrong for any big changes. "I would be surprised if there could be any regulatory attempt to expand the content of disclaimers under current law."

And if you think getting a ruling from the FCC is hard, you should try changing current law.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.