This afternoon the Senate will face a key test vote on the DISCLOSE Act, legislation designed to increase transparency of corporate and special-interest money in national political campaigns. Senator Al Franken described the DISCLOSE Act as “a commonsense measure to fix just some of the problems created by the Citizens United decision.”
The Citizens United case allows corporations and unions the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign advertising. As soon as the decision was announced in January of this year, President Obama declared, “This ruling gives the special interests and lobbyists even more power in Washington — while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates.”
Today’s Washington Post described Citizens United’s broad and alarming implications.
Corporations can now funnel money to a trade association to target Representative U or Senator X. The trade association must report its spending to the Federal Election Commission, but it doesn’t have to say where the money comes from. Labor unions could set up front groups to do the same. Under another gap in disclosure rules, wealthy individuals who want to influence election without the inconvenience of having their cash exposed can give money to nonprofit groups set up under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. Such organizations face limits on how much they can spend on election-related activities, but the limits are hardly an impediment.
These issues can be addressed with the DISCLOSE Act. If passed, corporations and special interests would be forced to disclose the top five donors in their political ads. This legislation would also require that the head of a company or group behind an ad would have to appear in it, similar to how a candidate now has to “approve this message” in their campaign advertisements.
As the Post’s editors wrote today, “it’s central focus is critical to ensuring that democracy is not for sale to the highest bidder.”