Cruz Holds Vote on FCC Chairman Over Political Speech

Republican Senator Ted Cruz blocked Tom Wheeler’s nomination to be chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission after asking whether the Democrat would use the agency to regulate political speech.

Wheeler’s appointment was on a Senate calendar for action yesterday and didn’t emerge as other nominees cleared the body.

“Yes, the senator is holding the nominee,” Sean Rushton, a spokesman for Cruz, said in an e-mail today. Senators can by tradition singlehandedly stall consideration of a presidential appointee.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, of West Virginia, the Democratic chairman of the Commerce Committee, said in an e-mailed statement he was “disappointed” that “highly qualified nominees were blocked last night.”

Wheeler, a venture capitalist and former leader of trade groups for the cable and wireless industries, would step into a post open since May, when the last chairman departed. Since then the FCC’s been led by Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn.

Tasks before the FCC include staging auctions sought by mobile providers led by Verizon Wireless, considering a flurry of television-station purchases proposed by companies including Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. (SBGI), and weighing AT&T Inc. (T)’s request for regulatory relief as companies drop traditional switched networks for connections that rely on Internet technologies.

Disclose Act

Cruz, of Texas, in a June hearing asked Wheeler to say whether the agency could regulate political speech or implement rules proposed under last year’s failed Disclose Act. The bill opposed by Republicans would have required nonprofit groups to reveal who pays for their political advertisements.

Cruz wants to know Wheeler’s views on implementing the Disclose Act by administrative action, Rushton said. Cruz wants to speak soon with Wheeler, he said.

At the hearing Cruz told Wheeler the disclosure issue has “the potential to derail your nomination.”

“A substantial number of members of this body believe it is unconstitutional and bad policy,” Cruz said.

Wheeler responded by saying, “That’s an issue that I look forward to learning more about.”

Cruz isn’t guaranteed to stop a vote on Wheeler. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, has advanced floor votes on some nominations this year even as senators insisted they wanted to continue holds on them, including the choice of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

Senate Hold

One or more senators can impose a hold, a tactic acknowledged by Senate tradition that does not exist under formal rules in the chamber. Holds -- which are often used as a way to extract information or concessions from the administration -- are often honored, although other senators usually pressure the lawmakers resisting action to drop their objections.

Republican senators in a letter to the FCC in April called the Disclose Act “one of the most politically charged, partisan issues in recent Congresses.” The lawmakers urged the agency not to implement its provisions.

The FCC last year adopted a rule saying television stations must disclose on a public website details of political ad purchases.

‘Disturbing Trend’

The requirement is “part of a disturbing trend to expand regulation of political speech,” Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s top Republican, said in a letter to the agency. McConnell said the administration of President Barack Obama was reacting to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling of 2010, which removed limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and labor unions.

Groups that kept their donors secret spent $311 million on campaigns in 2012, with 85 percent of the money favoring Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions.

The Senate also has before it the nomination to an FCC seat of Michael O’Rielly, a Republican congressional aide, whose arrival along with Wheeler would bring an occupant to each of the agency’s five seats.

To contact the reporters on this story: Todd Shields in Washington at tshields3@bloomberg.net; Laura Litvan in Washington at llitvan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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