DISCLOSE Act struggles in Congress

(This post is an update on Gloria Bilchik’s April post on the Democratic response to the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision. You can read it here).

Political maneuvering and paying for influence are as old as civilization. And the forces that maneuver and pay don’t always want to be known. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, opened the door to allow corporations and unions to use unlimited funds to impact federal elections. Here is a short background history of this decision courtesy of Senator Russ Feingold’s website:

  • The Tillman Act of 1907 banned direct contributions from corporations to federal political candidates.
  • The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 barred corporations and labor unions from using their general treasury funds for “independent expenditures” and “express advocacy” for a federal election.
  • The recent Citizens United decision struck down the 62-year-old Taft-Hartley restrictions on independent expenditures, cast doubt on the continued viability of the 102-year-old Tillman Act, and invalidated up to 24 state laws, several dating back to the 1890s.
  • Just six years ago, the Court said that the prohibition on corporations and unions dipping into their treasuries to influence campaigns was ‘firmly embedded in our law.
  • Foreign-owned companies—even those owned and controlled by foreign governments—are now free to underwrite the candidates of their choice.
  • The core of the McCain-Feingold law—the ban on unlimited “soft-money” contributions by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals directly to political parties—remains intact. It is still illegal for corporations to contribute directly to political parties.

This is what Senator Russ Feingold, had to say about the Citizens United decision:

In its ruling in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court has undone protections against corporate power that stood for more than a century. This decision is a terrible mistake, which gives corporate money a breathtaking new role in federal campaigns.

The court’s decision gives a green light to corporations to unleash their massive coffers on the political system. Oil companies, with virtually no harm to their balance sheets, can now try to “take out” members of Congress who don’t toe their company line on energy policy. Foreign-owned companies—even those owned and controlled by foreign governments—are free to underwrite the candidates of their choice.

The Citizens United decision is expected to start a large stream of corporate money flowing into campaigns, but much of it may disappear behind the veil of 501(c) and 527 organizations with patriotic names that hide corporate agendas.

On April 29 of this year, in response to the Citizens United decision, Democrat Chris Van Hollen, with bipartisan co-sponsors, Mike Castle (R-DE) and Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced the HR 5157, the DISCLOSE  Act (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections). Republican Walter Jones had this to say:

I don’t know many people in Eastern North Carolina who believe that transparency is a bad idea, or that Chinese or Russian-flagged companies should be able to spend unlimited amounts to influence U.S. elections, or that Wall Street banks should be allowed to spend their bailout money on campaign ads. This bill would address those issues.

The bill passed the House on June 24 on a vote of 219 to 206. Unfortunately, Democrats exempted the NRA in order to get Blue Dogs to pass it.  On April 29, Senators Chuck Schumer, Russ Feingold, Ron Wyden and Evan Bayh introduced the DISCLOSE Act in the Senate, but it could not clear Senate hurdles when it came up for a vote just before the August recess. Although it will come up for a vote again when he Senate returns in September, with the midterms just a few months away, it is unlikely that they will be able to pass anything in time for the midterm elections. Without the DISCLOSE Act, much more money will be entering the system, and at the same time, it will be less traceable.

If it passes, what will the DISCLOSE Act will do?

1. Enhance Disclaimers: Make CEOs and other leaders take responsibility for their ads.

2. Enhance Disclosures: It is time to follow the money.

3. Prevent Foreign Influence: Foreign countries and entities should not be determining the outcome of our elections.

4. Shareholder/Member Disclosure: We should allow shareholders and members to know where money goes.

5. Prevent Government Contractors from Spending: Taxpayer money should not be spent on political ads.

6. Provide the Lowest Unit Rate (TV advertising rate) for Candidates and Parties: Special interests should not drown out the voices of the people.

7. Tighten Coordination Rules: Corporations should not be able to “sponsor” a candidate.

You may remember, President Obama, during his State of the Union address in January, called out the conservative members of the Supreme Court for their corporate friendly decision on Citizen’s United. He strongly supports the DISCLOSE Act becoming law. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken right after the Citizens United decision indicated that 8 out of 10 Americans are against it. Obama’s confidence in boldly chastising Roberts and Alito who were sitting in the chamber at the time may have had something to do with this poll.

Co-Sponsors of the DISCLOSE Act, Senators Feingold, Schumer and Leahy, are asking for citizen co-sponsors.

You can become a citizen co-sponsor of the DISCLOSE Act here.