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Transparency should have few enemies


The DISCLOSE ACT is a straightforward legislative response to a gravely damaging Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate spending in elections. Far from revolutionary in scope, the DISCLOSE Act provides transparency and accountability in political spending, giving voters a valuable means to discern who are the interests that fund campaign ads.

It is unpredictable how much corporate money will flood into elections in our new unregulated system, but it is reasonable to assume it will be very substantial indeed – and possibly overwhelming in selected candidate races of particular interest to a major corporation.

Even before a single dollar is spent, the threat of corporate spending in elections wields significant influence over policymakers. Imagine the enormous political pressures business lobbyists can now place on Congress as it attempts to grapple with the major economic issues of the day, with the looming prospect of being punished or rewarded through direct campaign spending by the companies subject to the regulations. Corporate influence will reach to virtually all major policies – on financial services, health care reform, climate change, trade – everything. The public, minus the enormous wealth available to corporations, will be further shut out of its own government.

The disrupting potential of unlimited corporate spending in candidate elections can easily be seen in judicial campaigns that have had few restrictions on such spending. For example, in the 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court race, special interest groups outspent candidates four-to-one. In one particular race, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) targeted an incumbent justice, Justice Louis Butler, because of his pro-consumer positions on the court. But instead of criticizing Butler on the issues, WMC ran an expensive TV ad campaign attacking him as “Loophole Louie” for setting criminals free. Justice Butler was defeated and replaced by a pro-business justice of WMC’s liking. As Justice Butler warned his colleagues after the election, the message is clear: “Do not vote against business interests.”

Now that five U.S. Supreme Court justices – who have never run for public office nor served as legislators – have removed all constraints against corporate spending in elections, that is exactly the message members of Congress must ponder when deciding whether to vote against the interests of Wall Street on banking regulations or against the coal industry on global warming legislation.

The DISCLOSE Act will significantly help rein in some of the damage caused by the Roberts Court. This legislative package is focused primarily on transparency: informing the public of which corporations are spending how much to promote or attack candidates. Under DISCLOSE, corporations will have to post on their web pages their political spending activity. Political associations as well as nonprofit front groups that receive corporate money to run campaign ads must disclose where that money came from. If a corporation, union, section 501(c)(4), (5), or (6) organization, or section 527 organization spend on campaign-related activity, its CEO or organization head will have to stand by the ad and say that he or she “approves this message.” Campaign spending by foreign entities will be checked. And corporations that want to win large government contracts will also be prohibited from waging campaigns for or against candidates and the legislators responsible for issuing the contracts.

These are all common sense reforms and an appropriate response to a reckless Supreme Court decision.

Very few Republicans in Congress may want to lead the charge for greater transparency and accountability in government today, but it is a charge for which many Republicans in the end will not turn their backs. Even the most strident partisan understands that, in the new world of unlimited and unregulated corporate political spending, an informed electorate needs to know who is paying how much to promote whom on the campaign trail.

The DISCLOSE Act should pass with sufficient Republican support and be signed into law by the July 4th recess.

But more can and should be done. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) and 35 co-sponsors are promoting a Shareholder Protection Act, ensuring that a majority of all shareholders of a company must approve its political expenditures. And Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter Jones (R-NC) and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) are moving a congressional public financing bill that would provide candidates with the resources to offset the expected corporate onslaught. These latter measures may be somewhat more controversial, but they are needed no less.

Craig Holman is the government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen. Cross-posted at the National Journal’s Under the Influence blog.