Should Congress regulate political ad money?

The Supreme Court's decision earlier this year makes it easier for corporations and unions to influence elections. Many members of Congress want to change that.

Bill Clark/Roll Call Photos/Newscom
Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina spoke about the DISCLOSE Act earlier this year. The bill, which supporters said would provide more transparency in political ads, failed to clear an important procedural hurdle in the Senate last week.

Yes: Voters have every right to follow the money

Transparency of money is the cornerstone of free and fair elections. Transparency is the bedrock against special interests trying to buy favors from officeholders. It allows the public to monitor whether official favors and privileges are being doled out to those paying for campaign ads.

Just as important, transparency provides voters with the tools necessary to weigh the merits of political messages. Full disclosure of major donors funding a campaign ad is critical information for voters in assessing the interests behind, and accuracy of, the political message.

Opening the books on who is paying for campaign ads requires congressional action. Last week, the DISCLOSE Act once again came up for a Senate vote. And once again, proponents of transparency came up just short in their bid to break the Republican filibuster that has so far prevented consideration of the bill. Following the disastrous US Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission earlier this year, which allows corporations (and unions) to pour unlimited money into election ads, congressional Republican leaders are banking on independent campaign spending from Wall Street and the insurance industry to usher in a new Republican majority in Congress. But in order to make these campaign ads work for their caucus, Republican leaders do not want voters to know the ads are being paid for by the banks and the insurance industry.

Several Republican senators have a long history of supporting transparency in campaign finance. Yet none of them last week stood behind that principle. The defeat of the DISCLOSE Act under the feet of a GOP filibuster means that, while we will see record levels of corporate money in elections, the funding sources behind this tidal wave of ads will remain hidden.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist, Public Citizen

No: Our free speech rights are overburdened

In regulating political speech and money in political advertising, Congress has time and time again shown a willingness to sacrifice freedom of speech in favor of overbroad legislation and regulation. It is this tendency that led to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (“BCRA”) – a law that significantly burdened the exercise of First Amendment rights.

Since its enactment, the US Supreme Court has overturned many of BCRA’s restrictions on speech, but there are still far too many laws on the books regulating political speech. Whether the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, BCRA, or, as the high court wrote this year, the “568 pages of regulations, 1,278 pages of explanations and justifications for those regulations, and 1,771 advisory opinions since 1975” that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has adopted, the current plethora of regulations is a scheme too complex to navigate.

Congress should undertake a meaningful review of all campaign-finance regulations with an eye toward streamlining them, rather than creating an additional scheme that regulates money in political advertising. In revising the campaign-finance laws, Congress should be mindful of the burden that these laws place upon potential speakers.

In Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court recognized that “the right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it.” Our campaign-finance laws should be revised so that Americans can freely exercise this right. Some practical, yet meaningful, reforms might include raising or eliminating individual contribution limits to candidates, political committees, and political parties as well as raising reporting thresholds to reduce the burdens on exercising this fundamental right.

David N. Bossie, president, Citizens United

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