DISCLOSE Act is a No-Brainer After Citizens United, But Not for Republicans

On Monday, the United States Senate spent almost three hours discussing the proposed legislation entitled “Democracy Is Strengthened By Casting Light On Spending In Elections” Act, better known by the acronym DISCLOSE Act. The Senate version of the bill, originally introduced and sponsored in 2010 by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D), failed to achieve the 60 votes necessary to pass a cloture motion and bring the debate to a vote. The House version, sponsored by Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen (D), passed with limited bipartisan support in 2010, when the sting of the Citizens United decision was fresher. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) promised to bring the vote up again on Tuesday, but it is unlikely that the stonewalling by Senate Republicans with dissipate overnight. 

The idea is a simple one, and worth educating yourself about, even if Senate Republicans refuse to do so:

1) The DISCLOSE Act is about transparency, not limitation. If passed, the DISCLOSE Act would require “corporations, labor organizations, Super PACs and other entities” such as non-profit interest groups that spend $10,000 or more in campaign contributions over an election cycle to report the names of their donors who gave over $10,000 in a timely fashion. It does not prevent campaign contributions, even those above $10,000, but instead merely requires groups that seek to influence elections to disclose where they are getting their money. Donors would still be allowed to remain anonymous if they specified that their donations were not to be used for campaign purposes. Critics, namely Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have posited that making campaign disclosures public would lead to harassment of donors, and the fear of harassment would stop people from donating. Such claims ignore that the disclosure of the names, occupations, employers, and addresses of all individuals who give more than $200 per election has been required for 40 years. This legislation would extend the same – in fact much tamer – requirements to outside groups spending money on elections.

2) The DISCLOSE Act is constitutional. Somewhat ironically for supporters of limited corporate influence in politics, the much-maligned Citizens United decision very clearly supported robust disclosure of campaign finances. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that disclosures “provide information to the electorate. The resulting transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and different messages.” Specifically, in regards to political spending by corporations, Kennedy wrote that “prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation's political speech advances the corporation's interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are 'in the pocket' of so-called moneyed interests.”

3) The DISCLOSE Act does not play favorites. In a rather bizarre claim, Senator McConnell has asserted that the DISCLOSE Act favors labor unions. Perhaps he perceives some injustice because union members rarely pay over $10,000 in dues, their names will not be listed on disclosure reports. This seems largely irrelevant, since donors who contribute less than $10,000 to any group making independent campaign expenditures – regardless of political persuasion – would not be listed on reports. Furthermore, unlike corporations, unions are already required to annually disclose political donations of $5,000.

4) The DISCLOSE Act is an idea that many Republicans previously supported. Unsurprisingly, disclosure is an idea that has attracted bipartisan support in the past. Indeed, some of the Act's most ardent opponents were once proud supporters, until the undisclosed money started finding their pockets following Citizens United decision. This video says it all.

5) The DISCLOSE Act is necessary. Undisclosed campaign financing sabotages the electorate’s ability to make informed political choices. We aren’t talking about small changes either. Crossroads GPS, a super PAC founded by conservative strategist Karl Rove, spent $30 million on anti-Obama ads through May. Over 90% of its donors, dozens of whom have given over a million dollars each, are anonymous. It is highly unlikely that anyone spending five figures to finance election ads do so for purely altruistic reasons. Such large sums unduly influence the elected officials they benefit (or could potentially harm), and therefore deserve a certain amount of scrutiny. After all, the Supreme Court held in Buckley vs. Valeo that even the “appearance of improper influence” should be prevented. Furthermore, without proper disclosure regulations in place, money from foreign individuals, organizations, and even governments could be employed to finance electioneering endeavors.