Twice last week, the Senate failed to allow legislation to require greater disclosure of large campaign contributions. On July 16, by a vote of 51 to 44, and on July 17, by a vote of 53 to 45, Republican senators blocked consideration of S. 3369, the Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections, or DISCLOSE, Act. Sixty votes were required to take up the measure and proceed with a debate and vote.
Introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI-D), the bill is a response to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that ended restrictions on direct independent campaign expenditures by corporations, unions, and other outside groups. S. 3369 would require any organization that spends $10,000 or more during an election cycle to file a report within 24 hours, identifying any donors who gave that amount or more.
Research by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that anonymous spending by outside groups made up 1 percent of campaign expenditures in 2006 and about 44 percent in 2010.
Speaking in favor of the bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV-D) said, “If this flood of outside money continues, the day after the election, 17 angry old white men will wake up and realize they’ve just bought the country. About 60 percent or more of these outside dollars are coming from 17 people.”
A July 16 statement released by the White House said in part, “The consequences of this decision are predictable. If we allow this practice to continue, special interests will have unprecedented influence over politicians. It’s wrong. It’s corrosive to our democracy, and it’s a threat to our future.”
Republican opponents countered that the bill would trample on First Amendment rights, chilling political speech and leading to “donor harassment and intimidation.” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell charged that “after Citizens United, Democrats realized they couldn’t shut up their critics, so they decided to go after the microphone instead by trying to scare off the funders.”
Senator John McCain (AZ-R), known for leadership in passage of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, rose to speak against the DISCLOSE Act, which he called “a clever attempt at political partisanship.” McCain argued that the bill was rigged to protect unions, many of which support Democrats. “The DISCLOSE Act would have little impact on unions because of the convenient form of reporting,” he said.
Just before the Senate adjourned at 1 am on July 18, Senator Whitehouse vowed to continue the fight. “We’re not done; this is too important,” he said. “I don’t care if we have to do this seven times or 77 times.”
Congress considered an earlier version of the DISCLOSE Act in June 2010, about six months after the Citizens United decision. The bill passed the House by a largely partisan vote of 219 to 206, but failed by three votes to achieve the 60 needed to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
For more background on this issue, see the September 2010 issue of Congressional Digest on “Campaign Finance and Free Speech.”