WASHINGTON A Senate oversight hearing of the Federal Communications Commission took an unexpected turn on Tuesday toward a hot political topic that telecommunications regulators rarely address: donor disclosure in political advertising.
Fueled by new freedoms gained through a series of court decisions, political and issue advocacy groups spent heavily on the 2012 elections, both congressional and presidential, reaching a final price tag of $6 billion for political ads.
Much of that spending came from non-profit groups that can keep their donors secret. Many lawmakers, particularly Democrats, are looking for ways to force such non-profits to disclose who is actually funding their activities - an issue that is highly divisive in Congress.
While the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Services are responsible for oversight of secret-donor groups, Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson also chided the FCC for not using its regulatory powers.
At the Senate commerce panel hearing, Nelson cited an FCC rule requiring that broadcast ads "fully and fairly disclose the true identity" of their financiers.
Political ads currently name the sponsoring group, but Nelson is pursuing a move that would also identify the groups' donors, an issue that the panel's Democratic Chairman, Jay Rockefeller, said "goes to the very root of the integrity of democracy."
"When you hide behind that Committee of a Flag, Mother and Country," said Nelson, referring to the patriotic-sounding titles often used by outside groups, "and in the name of that entity all of the contributions are made, you are violating the statute and rule that (the FCC) implemented."
The FCC's five commissioners all said that transparency was a crucial matter, but largely avoided commitment to undertaking actual steps in pursuit of detailed ad disclosure.
"I think it's a very important issue and something we should look at," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
Texas Republican Ted Cruz, who won a highly-contested Senate election in 2012, cautioned the FCC against delving into politics and rule making that could be considered partisan.
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh. Editing by Andre Grenon)