It was not long ago that Republican congressional leaders embraced “transparency” as their mantra on how to address the potentially corrupting influence of money in politics. That was then, welcome to now.
Echoing the sentiments of all but two Republicans in the House who voted against the DISCLOSE Act, Cleta Mitchell, legal counsel for some of these members, declared: “…the Disclose Act would impose onerous and complicated ‘disclosure’ restrictions on organizations that dare to engage in constitutionally protected political speech and on corporations that dare to contribute to such organizations.”
The DISCLOSE Act (S. 3295), sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), is a legislative response to the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision that allows unlimited corporate and union spending in federal, state and local elections. The legislation would close a gaping loophole in the campaign finance disclosure system. Under existing law, groups that pay for independent expenditures need not disclose their major donors. Most corporations are not likely to want to be identified as backing or attacking particular candidates or political parties, so they will instead anonymously fund such campaign ads through innocuous-sounding outside groups, like Americans for Job Security. The DISCLOSE Act for the first time would require these outside groups to identify their major donors of $1,000 or more who are funding the campaign ads, as well as prohibit major government contractors and foreign corporations from paying for such ads.
Suddenly, many of the former champions of transparency see a political advantage in allowing donors to hide under cover. Best attack the DISCLOSE Act as partisan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asserted the bill “silences entities that traditionally disagree with Democrats and simultaneously exempts the big unions that spent millions electing Democrats from any restriction.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The DISCLOSE Act treats corporations and unions the same – the same disclosure requirements apply and the same pay-to-play restrictions apply. Any donor of $1,000 or more behind a campaign ad must be disclosed, be that donor a corporation, labor union or wealthy individual. The mere fact that most working-class individuals are not likely to give $1,000 for a campaign ad does not justify the attack on the bill as “exempting” Democrats.
The DISCLOSE Act extends the long-standing ban on government contractors making campaign contributions to cover independent expenditures as well – and this also applies to both corporations and labor unions that qualify as “government contractors.” A federal contractor is any person who enters into a contract with the federal government. Collective bargaining agreements are not by any means government contracts. Collective bargaining agreements are negotiations for wages and working conditions, not multi-million contracts awarded to an entity for products or services. If a union is awarded an actual contract for products or services as defined under federal law, it too would be subject to the pay-to-play restriction of the DISCLOSE Act.
While the ban on foreign-owned entities spending in American elections does indeed apply only to corporations, that is primarily due to the fact that there are no foreign-owned labor unions operating in the United States.
The DISCLOSE Act is primarily about letting American voters know who is paying for the wave of campaign messages that will inundate us in the coming elections. It is about disclosure, not partisanship. It is all about what Sen. McConnell was for – until he was against it.
Craig Holman is the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.