Democrats renew bid to require big campaign donors to disclose

DISCLOSE Act would require corporations, labor unions, and other groups to disclose campaign donations of more than $10,000, but it faces a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, here talking to reporters on Capitol Hill on July 10, is leading opposition to new disclosure requirements because he says the law is selective and can be used to harass people.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are launching a new drive to impose more disclosure requirements on campaign donors in the heat of a presidential election poised to be the costliest in history.  

The Senate will vote as early as Monday on the 2012 DISCLOSE Act, a bill that aims to offset some of the impact of the US Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations, labor unions, and other interest groups to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns. The DISCLOSE Act would require such groups to report donations of $10,000 or more to the Federal Election Commission.

“We’ve basically entered the Wild West of campaign finance,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York at a press conference on Thursday. “We believe this offers a fresh opportunity to reform and we’re going to seize it.”

With Republicans firmly opposed, the measure has little chance of passing Congress in time to force new transparency on the 2012 campaign cycle. Still, Democrats aim to use the vote to paint Republicans as standing for special interests, while Republicans say such disclosure is little more than an attempt to identify, intimidate, or even punish political enemies.

In the 2012 election cycle, individual contributions to candidates are capped at $2,500 and may not come from corporate or union treasuries. Contributions to candidates that come from traditional political action committees cannot exceed a $5,000 annual limit. But the Citizens United ruling spawned the creation of "super PACs", which can accept unlimited donations from any source to influence elections, so long as they do not coordinate spending with campaigns. In principle, super PACs must disclose donors, but in practice that has meant disclosing the names of politically active nonprofit groups, which are not required to disclose donors.

Since Citizens United, Democrats have sought to force disclosure of donors, including those giving to politically active nonprofit groups. Super PACs and nonprofits spent $204 million to influence the 2010 campaign cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission. The DISCLOSE Act is a diluted version of a 2010 bill that pinned the disclosure threshold at $600 and fell one vote short of overcoming a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

The initiative, which advocates say has garnered bipartisan – if private – support, is likely to face an uphill battle in the Senate, as Republicans have pledged a filibuster to thwart its progress. Among its staunchest opponents is Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly cast disclosure laws as infringements upon First Amendment rights to free speech. Mr. McConnell led the lawsuit that succeeded in rolling back key features of the the 2002 campaign finance law, known as McCain-Feingold.

DISCLOSE and other similar measures are “nothing less than an effort by the government itself to exposes its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies,” McConnell said during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on June 15. “And that should concern every one of us.”

McConnell also charges that the DISCLOSE Act is more burdensome for corporations than for unions, who traditionally throw their support behind Democratic candidates. Because unions are traditionally built like pyramids, local affiliates could each spend less than $10,000, exempting them from disclosure, said Michael Brumas, a spokesman for McConnell's office.

Democrats dismissed that argument Thursday, saying Republicans have not identified specific clauses pointing to such an advantage.

“There is a universal standard for everyone – individuals, corporations, nonprofits, NGOs, labor unions – at a $10,000-giving threshold,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island, who introduced the Senate version of the legislation at a press conference Thursday.

In the House, top Democrats led by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland are urging members to sign on to a discharge petition that would force the chamber to take up the act. The Republican-held House is not expected to take any action on the measure.

At a press conference on Thursday, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi pushed back against claims that the newest focus on disclosure grew out of Democrats’ significant fundraising lag behind Republicans ahead of the November elections. In June, Mitt Romney raked in $106 million to President Obama’s $71 million, marking the second month the presumptive Republican nominee has outraised the incumbent.

“Democrats have been on record for a long time wanting to reform the system,” Ms. Pelosi said. 

Mr. Van Hollen, a longtime proponent of the act, invoked Wednesday’s 33rd health-care repeal vote to assert that disclosure deserves a shot at consideration by the House.

“Let’s have one vote on allowing voters the right to know who’s financing these campaigns,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

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