On Thursday, Senate Democrats, along with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), unveiled sweeping campaign finance reform aimed at curbing campaign abuses in the wake of the conservative Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which struck down decades of campaign finance law. The main focus of the DISCLOSE Act (Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections) is to increase disclosure requirements on corporations, labor unions, trade associations, and nonprofit advocacy groups that spend money on ads to influence federal elections. The DISCLOSE Act forces the CEO of a corporation or head of an advocacy group to personally appear in the organization’s ads and take responsibility, and for the top funder of the ad to appear in the ad and take responsibility.
The status quo of electioneering allows corporate powers, billionaires, and even domestic subsidiaries of foreign corporations to essentially manipulate American elections without ever revealing themselves. The DISCLOSE Act is a tremendous start at addressing this crisis of open democracy. But predictably, secretive right-wing power brokers are pushing back. As soon as Van Hollen’s bill was introduced, front groups funded by the most elusive conservative elite fired back, swiftly criticizing the new transparency requirements as a so-called threat to their First Amendment rights:
— U.S. Chamber of Commerce: The DISCLOSE Act “stifles free speech.” Chamber President Tom Donohue quickly issued a statement condemning the bill as an attempt to “silence constitutionally protected speech and abridge First Amendment rights.” Donohue may feel threatened because the DISCLOSE Act undermines the very purpose of the Chamber: to attack progressive reforms while concealing the corporate money behind those attacks. For instance, the Chamber is running millions of dollars of ads against Wall Street reform, but the ads only say they are paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In fact, some of the nation’s largest financial conglomerates, including banks bailed out by taxpayers like CitiGroup, are funding the Chamber and in doing so, are underwriting these ads. Last year, the Chamber ran nearly $100 million dollars in advertising against health reform, dwarfing any other group for or against the bills in Congress. However, the Chamber never revealed that health insurance companies were secretly paying for much of those ads.
— Howie Rich’s Front Group: The DISCLOSE Act is “disclosure overkill.” The Center for Competitive Politics, one of real estate tycoon Howie Rich’s many anti-government front groups, quickly slammed the bill and absurdly argued that the “stand by your ad” mandate “provid[es] no informational benefit and reduc[es] the amount of available political speech” in an ad. This laughable claim that more disclosure gives less information is a cynical cover to help Rich stay behind closed doors as he operates a massive political machine from the perch of his SoHo apartment. Rich funds the right-wing attack group, Club for Growth, as well as the Sam Adams Alliance, the libertarian group that helped Eric Odom mastermind the very first tea party protests. A PBS expose on Rich found that he had funneled $7 million dollars into anti-government state initiatives throughout the country, while carefully hiding his identity and relationship to the “movement.”
— David and Charles Koch’s Front Group: The DISCLOSE Act is a “gambit to chill speech.” John Samples, a staffer at the Cato Institute — an anti-government think-tank founded by Charles Koch and funded still by David Koch — wrote an op-ed decrying the bill for curbing the speech of foreign-owned companies and for exposing the corporate backers of ads. David Koch funds Americans for Prosperity, which runs millions of dollars of attack ads against clean energy and health reform. But Americans for Prosperity bills itself as a grassroots citizens group, and never reveals that the Kochs founded the group and continues to finance it. The Koch brothers also fund a network of other secretive front groups and think tanks, but almost none of these right-wing groups openly bare the Koch name.
Notably, the Cato Institute, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Center for Competitive Politics filed amicus briefs to the Supreme Court to help knock down campaign finance laws in the Citizens United case.
The legislation also bars foreign corporations with domestic subsidiaries, federal contractors, and TARP recipients who have not repaid their funds from spending their money on politics.