Legislation introduced today by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) offers an important first remedy for blunting the impact of the this year’s controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC (the ruling overturns federal and state bans on corporate and union financed election advertising during the run-up to election day, allowing corporations and other groups to spend whatever they want, whenever they want; see more here).
The legislation, entitled the DISCLOSE Act (in what is perhaps an acronym over-reach, it stands for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections), would strengthen disclosure and disclaimer requirements for all election spending by independent entities (corporations, non-profits, 527s, unions, et al) and bar spending from foreign-held corporations and corporations holding government contracts (of $50,000 or more).
The provision barring spending by corporations with government contracts could affect tens of thousands of corporations, including 75% of Fortune 100 companies, according to one study by two professors at Yale Law School. And the disclosure piece would crucially include new requirements for independent groups receiving outside financing (e.g. Citizens for a Clean Energy Future with financing from Exxon-Mobile) to disclaim their top five donors in all sponsored advertisements.
While government reform advocates applauded the DISCLOSE Act today as an important first step, they also urged Congress to go much further, and pair the legislation with the Fair Elections Now Act, a bill that would create a small donor-driven public campaign financing option for all U.S. House and U.S. Senate candidates and create a viable way for candidates to run for office without any special interest or corporate-backed support.
“Now is the time for Congress to free itself from Wall Streets’ grip so Main Street can get a fair shake,” said Common Cause CEO and President Bob Edgar in a press release this afternoon. “The legislation introduced today is important, but to give Americans a voice in their democracy we need an alternative for candidates who don’t want to spend all their time courting special interests. The Fair Elections Now Act would do that, and must be part of Congress’ legislative response to the Citizens United decision.”
Susan Liss, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice echoed Edgar’s call for Congressional public financing. “We hope that Congress passes strong disclosure legislation. Another vital step for our democracy is for Congress to quickly move forward on small donor public financing, the Durbin-Larson bill,”
NC Voters for Clean Elections is urging the NC General Assembly to take a similar approach at the state level, and pass a combination of new disclosure laws and expanded public campaign financing programs this summer. Two public campaign financing bills are eligible to be considered during the short session, including a bill to make the Council of State pilot program permanent and applicable to additional offices (SB-20, SB-966) and a bill to authorize municipalities to create publicly financed Voter-Owned Elections programs in local elections (HB-120). Because of public financing program’s matching money provisions, they would provide some protection to candidates outspend by independent groups, including corporations.
States around the country have been considering dozens of different proposals to blunt the negative impact of Citizens United. The state of Iowa recently enacted a strong reform law, which includes stronger disclosure and disclaimer requirements, including a directive that corporate boards affirmatively and publicly approve political expenditures before they are made.