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Republicans Thwart New Campaign Finance Disclosure Rules As DISCLOSE Act Fails Procedural Vote in Senate
Senate Republicans today blocked legislation calling for new disclosure rules for campaign advertisements.
A unified Democratic caucus generated 57 "yes" votes -- three shy of the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster and allow the legislation, known as the DISCLOSE Act, to advance to an up-or-down vote. For procedural reasons, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) switched his vote from a "yes" to a "no" in order to bring the bill up again at a later date.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who caucuses with the Democrats, missed the vote due to a funeral in his home state, and no Republicans broke rank to join their Democratic colleagues. Campaign finance reformers had been working to win over moderate Republicans such as Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
The transparency measure, technically the "Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections" Act (S. 3628/H.R. 5175), was crafted by Democratic leaders in response to the Supreme Court's January ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which overturned a ban on corporations using money from their treasuries to fund independent expenditures.
Since Citizens United, unions and corporations have been using the new campaign finance landscape to their advantage. Last month, Mother Jones magazine reported on labor unions using money from their treasuries to fund advertisements for their preferred candidates in Pennsylvania and Arkansas races. The Texas Tribune earlier this year reported on corporate-funded newspaper ads attacking a state lawmaker. And a group supporting the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota last week began running TV ads thanks to significant contributions from several businesses -- including Target, Best Buy and Polaris Industries.
The battle over Citizens United and the appropriate legislative response has raged for months. Many business groups and GOP lawmakers hailed the decision as a victory for free speech and say they don't want to see First Amendment rights impeded by legislation such as the DISCLOSE Act. Many Democrats have countered that steps must be taken to curb the influence of special interests and that the public should at least have a right to know about the interests fueling new advertisements.
The Democrats' plan would impose new reporting requirements on independent political advertisements and electioneering communications broadcast in the run up to Election Day. Corporations, unions, trade associations, so-called 527 groups and 501(c)(4), (c)(5) and (c)(6) advocacy organizations that produce such ads would be required to disclose more information about their donors.
They would also be required to show the names of the top donors in the advertisements, and the head of the organization or the group's largest contributor would be required to "stand by the ad" -- giving the same, familiar disclaimer that candidates must include in their advertisements: "My name is so-and-so, and I approve this message."
Additionally, the bill would prohibit companies with outstanding loans from the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), large government contractors and foreign-controlled companies from producing independent expenditures.
The House narrowly passed the DISCLOSE Act in late June, with just two Republican Congressmen crossing the aisle to support the bill. Ahead of that vote, Democratic leaders struck a deal that would exempt the National Rifle Association and a handful of other organizations from certain disclosure provisions of the bill -- so long as the groups didn't primarily rely on corporate money for any political advertisements. (This legislative maneuvering irked many on the left, and earned the NRA staunch criticism from its typical allies on the right.)
Thanks to an amendment pushed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the House version of the legislation also sought to prohibit companies with government leases for Outer Continental Shelf offshore drilling -- such as BP -- from making independent expenditures.
In advance of today's vote, the chief sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), removed Kucinich's amendment from the bill. Schumer also added a provision -- long-supported by the Center for Responsive Politics -- to require senators and senate candidates to file their campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission electronically, instead of on paper, as they currently do.
President Barack Obama has championed the DISCLOSE Act and warned against the consequences of inaction.
"Corporate lobbyists will be able to tell members of Congress if they don't vote the right way, they will face an onslaught of negative ads in their next campaign. And all too often, no one will actually know who's really behind those ads," Obama said during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday. "A group can hide behind a name like 'Citizens for a Better Future,' even if a more accurate name would be 'Companies for Weaker Oversight.'
"A vote to oppose these reforms is nothing less than a vote to allow corporate and special interest takeovers of our elections," Obama continued.
Democrats are hoping to highlight Republican obstruction and opposition to the DISCLOSE Act ahead of November's elections. And criticism of the GOP continued to stream in after the failed cloture vote this afternoon.
"As millions of Americans struggle in this economy, the rich and powerful should not be able to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens; the power should be put back into the hands of the voters," Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "Today, once again, Senate Republicans put the special interests ahead of the interests of all Americans."
Such sentiments were echoed by Senate Democrats -- many of whom at railed against Citizens United during the recent confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, as OpenSecrets Blog previously reported.
"It is very disappointing that a minority of senators decided to block the Senate from even considering this bill to increase transparency and disclosure in elections," Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), long a champion of campaign finance reforms, said in a statement. "While the bill is not perfect, it was our best chance to provide voters with adequate information about exactly who is behind the onslaught of political ads they can expect to see this fall."
Yet Republicans believe they will be able to brandish their opposition to the DISCLOSE Act to win over voters in November.
On the Senate floor today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decried the DISCLOSE Act as "117 pages of stealth negotiations in which Democrats pick winners and losers, either through outright prohibitions or restrictions so complex that they end up achieving the same result" and as an example of Democratic "overreach."
"The supporters of this bill say it's about transparency. To that, I say it's transparent all right. It's a transparent effort to rig the fall elections," said McConnell, a long-time opponent of campaign finance regulations. "Their one goal here is to get people who would criticize them to stop talking about what Democrats have been doing here in Washington over the past year and a half."
McConnell's rhetoric has been mirrored by House Republicans, too.
"This was a blatant attempt by the Majority to use the people's House to sway the November election in the Democrats' favor, at the expense of Americans' constitutional right to free speech but at great favor to special interest union bosses," Republican House Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said after last month's vote in the lower chamber of Congress.
"Congress should not be wasting its time on an 'Incumbent Protection Act,' but instead should be focused on job creation," Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Donohue recently said. "The DISCLOSE Act is an unconstitutional attempt to silence free speech and a desperate attempt by [Democrats] to gain political advantage in the 2010 elections."
The bill's activist supporters counter that it will be Republicans, rather, who gain a political advantage -- for blocking the new rules.
"By opposing transparency, it seems that Senate Republicans and their special interest allies are trying to boost their own fortunes in November by ensuring that Republican-leaning corporate coffers can be opened up to help Republican candidates without leaving any fingerprints behind," Lisa Rosenberg, a lobbyist for the Sunlight Foundation, wrote in a blog item Monday.