Senators Introduce Bill To Toughen Disclosure Rules For Special-Interest Campaign Ads

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A group of senators Thursday (April 29) introduced the DISCLOSE Act, a bill to toughen disclosure rules for campaign ads by corporations, unions and advocacy groups. The bill could potentially reduce the new flow of campaign dollars to media outlets if those disclosure or other provisions prove a disincentive.

There are also limits on spending by U.S. subsidiaries of foreign entities and on companies that take government money--stimulus fund bidders, perhaps -- that could put a crimp in spending.

The bill, which is an acronym for "Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections," would require new, more explicit disclaimers on all TV ads funded by special interests, according to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

"For example, if a corporation or interest group has paid the money, we find out who really paid for it is running an ad, the CEO has to appear at the end of the ad and say he or she approved the message, just as candidates do," he said. "If it is an advocacy group, the head of the group and the top funder have to appear and take responsibility, to make sure that light is shined on shadow groups."

The legislation is a response to the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case back in September to allow corporations and unions to directly fund campaign ads. The court had said the prohibition was an unconstitutional restraint on speech. By some estimates north of a half-billion new dollars could flow into mid-term election ad spending.

"Our bill will shine a light on the flood of spending unleashed by the Citizens United decision," said Schumer.

He noted the bill does not circumvent the court by re-imposing a back-door ban on corporate spending, but instead closes some loopholes and boosts disclosure, so it will pass constitutional muster. Schumer also said the bill does not pick political winners and losers.

The bill mandates disclosure of spending amounts and donors. "You should have to disclose no matter who you are," said Schumer.

The bill would prevent foreign-controlled entities from spending unlimited amounts through U.S. subsidiaries--Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced a similar bill. The DISCLOSE Act would also prevent companies with government contracts over $50,000 from unlimited expenditures. It would ban expenditures by companies that receive government assistance. It would also expand the lowest unit rate.

The bill will be self-implementing and won't require the FEC to take any action, said Schumer. He said it needs to become law before the next election.

President Obama was quick to praise the move. Back in September,  Obama said he would work with Congress to come up with a legislative response to the decision.

"I welcome the introduction of this strong bi-partisan legislation to control the flood of special interest money into America's elections. Powerful special interests and their lobbyists should not be able to drown out the voices of the American people," said the president. "Yet they work ceaselessly toward that goal: they claim the protection of the Constitution in extending this power, and they exploit every loophole in the law to escape limits on their activities. The legislation introduced today would establish the toughest-ever disclosure requirements for election-related spending by big oil corporations, Wall Street and other special interests, so the American people can follow the money and see clearly which special interests are funding political campaign activity and trying to buy representation in our government. I hope that Congress will give this legislation the swift consideration it deserves, which is especially urgent now in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Passing the legislation is a critical step in restoring our government to its rightful owners: the American people."

Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center said passage of the bill was imperative: "If Congress fails to take action in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, vital information about significant campaign expenditures will be hidden from public view. A vote against the DISCLOSE Act is a vote to keep citizens in the dark about who is really calling the shots in Washington."

Ditto Public Citizen: "Let's get the DISCLOSE Act passed as quickly as possible to help open the books on the 2010 elections," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the group.