Frustrated with the Koch Brothers and other conservative donors pouring money into attack ads, Democrats are asking a federal agency to enact tougher political disclosure rules.
But that agency isn't the Federal Election Commission, which typically handles campaign finance issues. Instead, top Democrats in the House and Senate are pressing the Federal Communications Commission to use its power over the nation's airwaves to make super PAC spending more transparent.
The Keeping Our Campaigns Honest Act (yes, that's the "KOCH Act") would direct the FCC to require that super PACs and other outside political groups disclose their major donors in TV and radio ads.
"The American people are owed a level honesty when it comes to identifying who is trying to influence their vote," said Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, one of the sponsors of the bill. "So long as these individuals are allowed to continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars attempting to impact our elections and our democracy, they should also be required to step out into the light and let voters know just who they are."
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Reps. Frank Pallone, Anna Eshoo, G.K. Butterfield, and Doris Matsui are among the 16 leading Democrats backing the bill. Sen. Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, plans to introduce counterpart legislation in the upper chamber in the coming days.
The legislation is dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Congress, but the Democrats argue that the FCC doesn't actually need any new legal power. The bill is an attempt to pressure the agency to act on its own to expand its existing rules requiring that all TV and radio ads (commercial and political) reveal the "true identity" of their sponsors. That requirement should mean more than just a vague name, like "Americans for a Better America," the Democrats argue—it should mean the group's major donors.
If the FCC followed the Democrats' wishes, it would face fierce resistance from Republicans, who argue that greater political disclosure can lead to harassment and stifle free speech.
And FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler may be reluctant to wade into the contentious debate over political disclosure—especially because the issue has already burned him in the past.
After Democrats first floated the idea of using the FCC to unmask super PAC donors in 2013, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz demanded that Wheeler, then just a nominee, swear never to try the strategy. Cruz blocked Wheeler's nomination for two weeks until Wheeler assured him that the issue was "not a priority."
The FCC and Cruz's office did not respond to requests to comment on the new legislation.