Campaign Spending Bill Pleases Watchdogs

Democrats won applause Thursday from a variety of public interest groups for a bill they brought forward designed to counter the effects of corporate spending in elections.

As expected, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Mike Castle (R-Del.), introduced their legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act, would create a new disclosure system that would let the public — including corporate shareowners — learn which corporations are promoting or attacking which candidates, even when corporate money is laundered through front groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber, an influential-but-shadowy ardently anti-regulation lobby, has strongly opposed the transparency the new legislation would provide. The Chamber reportedly plans to spend $50 million in a campaign this year directed at defeating Democrats and their reform agenda.

The legislation was prompted by a controversial Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, referred to as Citizens United, which struck down decades of regulation that limited the ability of corporations to influence U.S. elections. The ruling was decided on a 5-4 vote dominated by the court’s conservative bloc. President Obama took the unusual step of criticizing the decision during his January State of the Union address.

“The legislation provides Congress with the opportunity to mitigate the destructive impact of the Citizens United decision which has opened the door for corporations, labor unions and other organizations to flood federal elections and buy influence over government decisions with massive campaign expenditures,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, and a long-time public interest advocate.

Wertheimer praised the DISCLOSE Act as fair and equitable, and not partisan, in its impact.

“The bill applies alike to corporations, labor unions, trade associations and non-profit advocacy organizations,” he says. “It is also fair to donors. Under the legislation, any donor to any organization can restrict the donated funds from being used for campaign-related expenditures and the donor will not be subject to any disclosure requirements. Thus, whether a donor is disclosed or not is fully within the control of the donor. Congress must act quickly to enact the legislation introduced today and make it effective in time for the 2010 congressional elections.”

Another public-interest advocate applauded the DISCLOSE Act, but adds that more must be done to effectively counter the Citizens United decision.

“These are vital interim steps to mitigate the damage from the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. They would lift the veil of secrecy from corporate political spending and prevent some of the most corrupting forms of corporate political expenditures,” says Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “But we need stronger measures to counter the flood of corporate money that Citizens United unleashes.”

Public Citizen says in a statement that it advocates a series of short-, medium- and long-term measures to remedy the court’s decision. These additional measures include:

  • the Shareholder Protection Act (H.R. 4790), which would require a majority of all shareholders to approve annually political expenditures desired by the management of publicly held corporations;
  • the Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 1826 and S. 751), which would provide public financing to qualified candidates to enable them to respond to the expected corporate onslaught; and
  • a constitutional amendment to clarify that the First Amendment does not let corporations drown out citizens’ voices in U.S. elections.

“Congress immediately should enact comprehensive public financing of elections and give shareholders control over how CEOs spend their money,” says David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “We shouldn’t shy away from giving shareholders control over corporate political spending in their name — or from pursuing fundamental changes to the way elections are financed. The American public is fed up with corporate interests dominating Washington. It’s time to pursue every serious fix available.”

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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