As big money, often from well-hidden donors, pours into campaign 2014 in six- and seven-figure chunks, you’d think quick approval of tough disclosure requirements would be a no-brainer in the U.S. Senate.
But you’d be wrong. The DISCLOSE Act, now pending in the Senate Rules Committee, has at least 52 supporters in the 100-member Senate – 51 co-sponsors plus chief patron Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, – but is unlikely to get the 60 votes needed to break a promised Republican-led filibuster. With Washington at a standstill however, momentum for financial disclosure is building in statehouses across the country.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced last month that he would not veto a new financial disclosure law unanimously passed by the state legislature. The bill expanded disclosure requirements to include members of boards, commissions and agencies, allowing the public greater insight into the affairs of the officials in charge 15 commissions, including land use and housing. The bill became law without the governor’s signature, and enjoys broad popular support.
Meanwhile in Massachusetts, the Senate unanimously approved legislation to require Super PACs and other “independent” groups to disclose their donors and expenditures within seven days of funding a political ad. The Massachusetts bill also requires the top five donors giving more than $5,000 to be named in the campaign ads financed with their money. “This bill will bring more sunshine to dark money in elections, and will be one of the strongest disclosure laws in the country,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
In California, SB 27 has passed and will require dark money groups to disclose their donors to the public after the 2014 midterms. Work continues on a stronger California DISCLOSE Act, which has passed the legislature and has been moved back to Appropriations Committee for an August 6th review.
Like the new Massachusetts law, California DISCLOSE would increase transparency in political ads by requiring that the names of the top three donors be listed at the beginning of ads. "With more information at their fingertips, voters will be more encouraged to vote and can make better-informed decisions at the ballot box," said State Sen. Mark Leno. More than $475 million was spent in 2012 on California ballot measures, much of it spent by donors hiding behind committees with misleading names.
Delaware in 2012 closed a major loophole that allowed independent groups to evade disclosure by playing word games in their ads. And while Congress is stymied in Washington, the I.R.S. is in the midst of revising its rules to require political nonprofits to reorganize as political action committees and disclose their donors.
Importantly, the Supreme Court has upheld disclosure laws repeatedly. The court wrote in 1976 that such laws, “serve substantial governmental interests in informing the electorate and preventing the corruption of the political process.” In 2010, the same year as the disastrous Citizens United case, the court upheld disclosure 8--1.
In the face of a huge increase in outside political money—with advertising on track to break $2 billion this cycle—DISCLOSE and similar bills in the states can shine a light on this “shadow campaign.” These bills represent the march towards a more informed electorate and, thus, a more functional democracy.
Issues: Money in Politics