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FEC Decision May Hurt Political Ad Spend

Quick-hit TV and radio political spots must still carry a spoken disclaimer, the Federal Election Commission said last week in a decision that could keep some new dollars from flowing to broadcast coffers.

In its first substantive opinion since seating a full complement of six commissioners, the FEC concluded that even 10- and 15-second TV and radio ads for or against federal candidates must include the spoken disclaimer at the end identifying the group responsible for the ad.

The Club for Growth PAC sought an exemption from the spoken-disclaimer requirement last fall for the ads, or at least the ability to truncate the so-called stand-by-your-ad disclaimers (or "claimers," as the case may be), but the commissioners said there was no wiggle room in the law.

“We were hoping to use these forms of ads, as were other nonprofit groups and other PACs, but with this decision, nobody is going to do it because it is impractical,” said David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth.

The Club bought longer ads targeting particular races, in May spending $250,000 on local TV time in Tennessee, West Virginia and North Carolina. But don’t look for the shorter ads it hoped to buy to reinforce those longer messages.

“Not if they are express advocacy or electioneering communications because you have to air these stupid disclaimers that sound like gobbledygook and take up four seconds out of the ad,” Keating told B&C. “We might redeploy our resources, but I have talked to a lot of nonprofit groups and they just don’t do TV advertising because they can’t afford it. If they could do 10- and 15-second spots, I think they could have afforded it.”

In denying the exemption, the FEC commissioners cited the fact that when Congress amended the law to add the stand-by-your-ad disclaimer, "it did not create an exemption for television communications of 10 or 15 seconds or any other duration, even though it was aware of the commission's already-existing regulatory exceptions for 'impracticality' [skywriting] and 'small items' [pins, buttons]."

According to a source at the meeting Monday, three of the six commissioners said this was not the outcome they would have preferred, but the law was clear for broadcast ads.

Despite the commissioners’ reluctance, Keating said the Club won’t take the decision to court.

The order was originally drafted last January, but it had to wait for a vote because up until a few weeks ago, the FEC had only two commissioners, while four are needed for a vote.

The Campaign Legal Center, which opposed the exemption, was both pleased with the decision itself and with what it saw as the signal that the new FEC commissioners were ready to enforce the law even if they disagreed with it.

"Given the agency’s spotty record for enforcing federal campaign-finance statutes," the center said in a statement, "the Campaign Legal Center is encouraged by the fact that the newly reconstituted commission did the right thing today by applying the statute as written."