Democrats Push Back on Wheeler at Hearing

WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commisson chairman Tom Wheeler took some heat from both sides of the aisle — including his fellow Democrats — in a sometimes tense and contentious oversight hearing in the House Communications Subcommittee on Tuesday (March 22).

The almost three-hour hearing took on some hot-button issues, including the FCC’s set-top proposal and the chairman’s lack of enthusiasm for an inquiry into political ad disclosure rules.

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who has pushed the FCC to revisit its definition of those disclosures, including via legislation, was not happy.

He said he was not satisfied with Wheeler's response to his letter on the subject — which he suggested was more like a “thanks for your input” answer — and said he doubted the chairman would think such an answer was sufficient.

Yarmuth said he wasn’t expecting the FCC to immediately start enhancing its disclosure requirements, but expected more than this.

He did not ask Wheeler why the chairman had not opened an inquiry, using his time to simply express his displeasure and asked that the FCC take action and that FCC staffers be made available so he could discuss with them their theory of the “editorial control” of an ad that triggered disclosure.

The FCC has signaled that it is relying on a historic interpretation of editorial control in requiring disclosure of the a political action committee’s officers but not the underlying funders, Yarmuth said. As a former editor, Yarmuth added, he knows who has the real control behind such groups, which he labeled, archly, “Americans for Puppies and Kittens” and other similar appellations.

He called the “editorial control” definition a “useless standard” and one that perpetuated the deception of the American public.

On the set-top proposal, Wheeler was pressed by Reps. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) as to how the proposal would affect diverse content providers, suggesting it could impact them adversely. Butterfield went so far as to suggest that — at least to some of the diversity groups he cited — it could mean a new form of digital redlining.

Clarke said she had commissioned a Congressional Research Service study on the set-top proposal’s potential impact of the set-top proposal on diverse programmers and communities, and asked Wheeler if he would be willing to delay action on the proposal until it was completed.

Wheeler said he was willing to work with the committee but did not commit to any delay, saying he did not know how long such a delay would be.

Even Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) got a little snappy with Wheeler as she was trying to defend him against assertions by Republican commissioners that they were denied the ability to talk about items before the commission, even as the chairman was blogging and summarizing those items for outside stakeholders, the press and the public.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.