Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski Wednesday defended the agency's vote to move station political files online as part of its decision to move TV station public files online over the next two years. He also came close -- but no cigars -- to saying the FCC would not expand that political file data collection requirement.
That came at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the FCC's budget request -- a 2% increase from $340 million to $347 million -- essentially flat adjusted for inflation, added the chairman, and despite increasing workloads in many areas.
The hearing was not about that budget, primarily, but was instead a chance for some Appropriations hearing oversight of the commission -- the FCC chair's first appearance before the Financial Services and General Government subcommittee in a decade -- with questions that ranged over many subjects.
Subcommittee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) teed up a chance for the chairman to explain the decision to put political files online given complaints from broadcasters that it would cause hardships and competitive disadvantages. Durbin supports the move, saying it increases transparency and educates the public, particularly given the lack of a Super PAC disclosure law.
Durbin also asked whether the commission was teeing up a similar online posting requirement for cable and satellite political files.
The chairman did not answer the question about cable or satellite, though previously he has pointed out that the action the FCC took was in response to a specific recommendation in the study on the information needs of communities that applied only to TV station files.
Genachowski also said that the FCC had done its due diligence -- a point he made during the FCC's vote to approve the move last month -- and found that those dogs did not hunt, as it were. "We concluded that the arguments about burden really weren't realistic," he said. Asked if the FCC was forcing disclosure of sensitive pricing data, the broadcaster complaint about competitive disadvantage, particularly sense cable and satellite are not similarly burdened, Genachowski said that the data was already disclosed -- in paper form at stations -- and available to anyone with an economic interest.
He expertly navigated around a follow-up question from Sen. Jerrry Moran (R-Kan.) about whether the FCC would go beyond what was currently included in the political file to require the collection of any additional information. "What I hear you saying," said Moran, "is this is what the Congress authorized to be collected and retained. It is what the Supreme Court said was fine." Both are arguments the chairman made at the public meeting at which the item was voted.
Moran said he assumed the answer was no, and did not say whether he still assumed that after the following exchange:
Genachowski: "I think you are right. The steps that we put in place simply said we have already worked out what should be the disclosures. Let's move them online. There are many people with many different views who think that disclosure should be done differently, including broadcasters who proposed some ideas on how to modify the disclosures. "That is a discussion that could be had and we will be open to those suggestions. But the default is that what has been disclosed will continue to be disclosed. [The FCC said it would take a look after a year at how its beta test of those political file postings -- beginning with 200 stations in the top 50 markets -- collect comment and proceed accordingly.]
Moran: "Do you have the statutory authority to collect and disclose more information or were you able to do what you did because of the law you indicated Congress had passed [McCain-Feingold].
Genachowski: "I would presume that we do. As part of broadcasters' public trustee obligations which go back many, many decades I would presume we have that authority. There have been a few instances where Congress said to the FCC 'whatever you do, make sure you do this," and this is one of those cases. But I think most people would agree that authority with respect to information from spectrum licensees is pretty broad."
The FCC currently has open a separate proceeding on expanding its program/issues list to provide more detailed information about what public interest programming broadcasters are airing.
The chairman seemed taken by surprise by a Durbin question that actually was about the FCC's budget. According to Moran, the FCC asked for a 10% reduction in funding for the FCC Inspector General's office, a position Durbin said was " a little more popular since the GSA mess," adding: "why would you want to cut back on the Inspector General's capacity. Genachowski said he thought Durbin was wrong, but that, in any event, "our practice has been, is and will be to pass through the Inspector General's request for a budget and to support their budget." He called the IG's work and independence "incredibly important."