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The DISCLOSE Act: Nothing Good for Broadcast, Cable, and Satellite Operators

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned various restrictions on political spending by corporations in the Citizens United decision, it set off a flurry of activity in Washington. Many, including famously the President in his State of the Union address, derided the decision as opening the political process to the corrupting influence of corporate cash. Many in Congress promised a swift legislative response to minimize the impact of the Court’s ruling. Regardless of where you stand on the Court’s decision, I have to say I was disturbed by a number of statements coming out of Capitol Hill afterwards which made clear that the speakers had no understanding of the laws already on the books relating to political advertising on electronic media. Some promised to change the law to what it actually already is (although they apparently didn’t know it), and others pointed out “problems” that would result from the Citizens United ruling that current law already prohibits from occurring.

Grandstanding without basis is, however, a well-established Washington tradition, and I presumed that when legislative staffers got together to draft the legislation, they would quickly figure out that these criticisms and unneeded solutions had been off-base. I apparently was too optimistic. Today, Senator Schumer of New York unveiled the Senate version of the legislation (Senate link not yet available) at a news conference on the steps of the Supreme Court. The President publicly applauded the legislation, and the House has promised hearings within a week on its version of the bill in hopes of enacting it quickly enough to govern this Fall’s elections. The DISCLOSE Act (the acronym for “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections”), as its name indicates, requires ample disclosure when corporations or unions spend money on ads relating to a federal political campaign. Unfortunately, it does not stop there, and attempts to then rewrite political advertising laws contained in the Communications Act of 1934 that were not impacted by the Citizens United ruling. These changes appear to be an effort to require broadcasters, as well as cable and satellite operators, to subsidize the ads of not just candidates, but of their national political parties as well, in an effort to make their ad dollars go farther than those of a corporation exercising its rights under Citizens United.

Setting aside the wisdom or constitutionality of that approach, the rub is that the legislation was apparently drafted in such a rush that aspects of it quite literally make no sense. For example, the relevant section of the bill is entitled “TELEVISION MEDIA RATES”, but it then amends the political advertising provisions of the Communications Act that affect both television and radio. Even if the impact on radio was unintended, the matter is further confused by a requirement that the FCC perform random political audits during elections of at least 15 DMAs of various sizes, and that each DMA audit include “each of the 3 largest television broadcast networks, 1 independent television network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.”

Similarly, the statutory exceptions to the requirement for providing equal time to a candidate’s opponents when the candidate appears on-air would be amended to exclude certain appearances by a candidate’s representative as a triggering event. However, since only the appearance of a candidate can trigger equal time in the first place, creating an exception for appearances by a candidate’s representative serves no purpose.

Further indicating that the bill is premised on a misunderstanding of the current law, the Reasonable Access provisions of the Communications Act would be amended so that instead of FCC licensees being required to provide federal candidates with “reasonable amounts of time,” they would be required to provide “reasonable amounts of time, including reasonable amounts of time purchased at the lowest unit charge ….” The premise of this change appears to be a lack of understanding that all time sold to a candidate in the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election must be sold at the lowest unit charge for that class of time. The broadcaster has no discretion to charge anything but the lowest unit charge during that time, making this change pointless as well.

A number of other odd provisions in the Senate version of the bill that would significantly impact media companies (and not just broadcasters) is discussed in an Advisory we issued to our clients earlier today. Two of particularly great concern would drastically reduce the lowest unit charge for political advertising while significantly expanding the pool of entities eligible to receive lowest unit charge. It is worth noting that none of these media-oriented provisions appear to be in the House version of the bill, so hopefully they will be excised from the Senate bill before any harm is done. Regardless, broadcasters, as well as cable and satellite providers, need to be vigilant to ensure that these provisions, if not eliminated outright, are at least heavily modified before any final bill emerges.