Why Democrats are trying again on campaign finance reform

Odds are long that the DISCLOSE Act will pass. But Senate Democrats are trying again Thursday, saying the campaign finance system needs greater transparency. Republicans say the bill gives Democratic candidates an edge.

Susan Walsh/AP
Senate Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York (l.), accompanied by Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 27, to discuss the DISCLOSE Act vote.

Senate Democrats are trying again Thursday to pass legislation aimed at greater disclosure in the campaign finance system, as well as other restrictions.

The odds are long that the bill – called the DISCLOSE Act – will pass. Senate Democrats tried and failed to pass the legislation in July, and in the heat of an election campaign, members are even less likely to break party ranks. The Democrats need to bring at least one Republican to their side to halt a filibuster.

But Democrats are pressing on. If they somehow manage to pass the bill, they score a victory. If not, they have a talking point for the midterms – that, they will say, Republicans are defending a campaign system that allows special-interest money to flood the airwaves without the clarity of knowing who’s behind it.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York said Wednesday that Democrats are willing to delay the bill’s effective date until 2011, after this November’s midterm elections.

“Even if we didn’t take this step, the reality is, we are late enough in the election cycle that the law could not realistically take effect for this fall,” said Senator Schumer, chief Senate sponsor of the bill. “But to show we are willing to work with Republicans, we would offer this as an amendment if we can get onto the bill.”

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the latest vote on DISCLOSE “pure politics” and “an incumbency protection act for Democrats in Congress.”

“Today in the Senate, in the middle of the worst recession in memory, the Democratic leadership has decided to spend the next two days on the same failed, partisan campaign spending bill aimed at giving Democrats a political edge,” Senator McConnell said Wednesday on the Senate floor.

The DISCLOSE Act – which stands for Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections – was introduced in response to a controversial 5-to-4 Supreme Court ruling in January called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The majority found that corporations and unions have a First Amendment right to engage in political speech before an election. The ruling triggered liberal fears that corporate money would flood the campaign system, tilting the “messaging” playing field heavily toward Republicans. In an unusual move, President Obama criticized the ruling to the justices’ faces in his January State of the Union address.

Just how much money has entered the political arena this election season as a direct result of the ruling remains unclear. But Democrats are determined to counter the decision with legislation. The DISCLOSE Act would require new disclosure practices for corporations, unions, trade associations, and nonprofit advocacy groups that make independent expenditures to influence federal elections. One provision would require the head of a corporation or other covered group to appear personally in an ad and state that he or she approves its message.

The act also bars campaign spending by foreign corporations with US subsidiaries, federal contractors, and TARP recipients that have not repaid the funds.

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