RNC Selling TV Rights for Debates? Not So Fast

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CNN is reporting that RNC officials have informally kicked around the idea of sanctioning all Republican presidential primary debates in 2011/2012 and selling off the TV rights. Though it would be largely unprecedented — the DNC sanctioned, but did not sell, debates in 2007 — in many ways, the idea makes sense. It would be an added revenue stream for an organization with well-known money woes coming out of the last election cycle. It would reestablish the committee as a central player in the process as groups like American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS take on ever-larger roles. It might give the party more control over who gets to ask the questions, or at least where the answers are aired — a number of conservatives were very displeased when they learned the first debate scheduled at the Reagan Library was to be co-hosted by NBC News, which employs liberal pundits like Rachel Maddow and Ed Shultz at MSNBC.

NBC is not pleased at the prospect of such a situation. “While we haven’t received any such proposals, the selling of news events such as debates is unacceptable to NBC News,” a network spokeswoman told Yahoo News. But TV politics and cable news wars aren’t the real barrier here. The whole venture, which, again, the RNC has not said is under official consideration, is legally fraught to say the very least:

Larry Noble, an election law attorney with Skadden, Arps, described it as a “novel” concept but also said it raises a “serious question” as to whether it is even “possible under the law” to make such a payment beyond the federal contribution limits. Federal law caps an individual’s and a political action committee’s annual donation to a national party committee at $30,800.

“The parties would have to show that this was in the ordinary course of business, and the media outlets would have to show it’s in the ordinary course of their media business or news business to pay for this type of event,” said Noble, a former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission. “They have to show that this is not a prohibited contribution to the party.”

Even if it’s squared away as “ordinary” for the RNC to sell rights to a broadcast or cable outlet, what happens if a major donor, coalition of donors, or a third-party group that takes unlimited donations were to bid on broadcast rights? What if their bid were far above market value — more backdoor donation than business offer? That’s sketchy territory.

The Federal Election Commission, which declined comment on this matter, doesn’t appear to have ever taken up anything like selling TV rights in the past. They do however have some guidelines on the rules political committees must follow when selling their assets, a situation that occurs often as temporary campaign committees fold, or when engaging in commercial ventures. As a general rule, revenues from selling anything counts as a contribution subject to legal limits. There are only two explicit exceptions in the FEC’s guidlines: selling mailing lists and liquidating equipment or supplies. TV rights clearly don’t fall into those categories and the sale of broadcast rights, if the RNC attempts it, would likely require a new ruling.