Justice Anthony Kennedy’s controversial 5–4 majority opinion in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case specifically endorsed the idea of campaign finance disclosure. “Disclosure is the less-restrictive alternative to more comprehensive speech regulations,” he wrote, adding that they ensure voters are informed enough about who is speaking to fully assess the content of the political message. But with a bitterly divided Federal Election Commission unable to issue regulations to enforce those principles, many political organizations have kept secret the names of the individuals and corporations funding their advertisements.
In 2010, a bill to expand disclosure passed the Democratic-controlled house of representatives, but failed by a single vote in the Senate as Republicans unified to filibuster the measure. That bill — the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act also contained provisions restrictinggovernment contractors and foreign companies from political advertising.
Today, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and some of his Democratic colleagues unveiled a new attempt — the DISCLOSE Act of 2012 — focusing just on disclosure provisions. According to a fact sheet provided by Whitehouse’s office, the bill would require the following:
Any covered organization that spends $10,000 or more on campaign-related disbursements during an election cycle [must] file a disclosure report with the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours, and [must] file a new report for each additional $10,000 or more that is spent, detailing the amount and nature of each expenditure over $1,000 and the names of all of its donors who gave $10,000 or more.
Covered organizations include super PACs and tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organizations. Additionally, the ads would have to list the top donors behind the message.
With outside groups spending millions and hugely unpopular, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) says Democrats are hopeful that even in a more Republican congress, the bill might attract bipartisan support. The Senate’s rules committee, which Schumer chairs, will begin considering the bill at a hearing next week.
Like many of his Republican colleagues, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has indicated many times that he believes campaign finance disclosure — not limits — is the best way to ensure a just political system. With this new DISCLOSE Act, they will once again be forced to show whether they actually believe it.