By Craig Holman
Today, the U.S. House of Representatives took the first bold step in repairing some of the damage caused by the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Public Citizen applauds the passage of the DISCLOSE Act (H.R. 5175) by a 219 to 206 vote. Two Republican members of Congress – Reps. Michael Castle (Del.) and Walter Jones (N.C.) – stood firm on their principles of promoting transparency in elections and joined in leadership with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in pressing for adoption of the measure.
When five justices of the Supreme Court decided unilaterally to rewrite the nation’s campaign finance laws and allow unlimited corporate spending in elections, it became imperative for Congress, at least as a first step, to give voters a chance to know who is paying how much to promote or attack candidates. The DISCLOSE Act, which stands for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections, provides voters the desperately needed means to decipher campaign messages by revealing the true funding sources behind campaign ads. The measure closes the gaping loopholes in current disclosure laws that allow corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to hide their campaign spending by funneling their money through trade associations and innocuous-sounding front groups. Revealing the funders behind these groups is perhaps the most valuable tool voters can use in evaluating the merits of the campaign messages that are about to besiege them.
Congressional leaders carved out a limited exemption to the individual donor disclosure requirement for the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association and others to get the measure approved by the House. The exemption is troubling and disappointing but does not pose significant damage to the overall objectives of the bill.
Public Citizen urges the Senate to act swiftly and ratify the DISCLOSE Act next week, so an effective transparency regime can be in place for the 2010 elections and beyond.
Its importance not withstanding, the DISCLOSE Act is far from sufficient to remedy the damage from Citizens United. Congress must pass the Shareholder Protection Act (H.R. 4790) to ensure that corporations do not spend shareholder money on elections against their wishes. And it must pass the Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 1836; S. 751) to ensure that all candidates for office, especially those not benefiting from corporate spending, have a foundation to run viable campaigns.
Ultimately, however, we need a constitutional amendment to rescue our democracy from the unlimited corporate spending authorized by Citizens United.
Craig Holman is the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.