By Mike Lillis - 07/12/12 05:26 PM EDT
House Democratic leaders this week escalated their calls for more transparency from campaign donors amid a presidential election that's sure to be the most expensive in the nation's history.
Urging GOP leaders to take up the Disclose Act, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the anonymous and unlimited campaign spending allowed by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision has empowered wealthy interests "to suffocate the system, to suppress the vote and to poison the debate."
"You cannot have fairness to the middle class in your policy if you have complete, unreported, large, significant special-interest money pouring into the political process," Pelosi said Thursday during a press briefing in the Capitol. "It not only undermines the voice of the many, it also suffocates any vitality of ideas in the Congress."
"We all recognize that when a lot of these groups are financing these campaigns," Van Hollen said, "they're trying to buy a Congress that will rig the rules of the game in their favor."
The Democrats used Thursday's push for greater transparency to attack Mitt Romney, the GOP's wealthy presidential hopeful, who has largely refused to disclose information about his finances.
"The person who wants to be the chief executive and control the finances of the United States," Van Hollen charged, "should tell the American people how he conducts his own finances."
In its two-year-old Citizens United decision, the high court ruled that funding caps on corporate and union ads targeting individual candidates violate the right to free speech. The ruling effectively killed part of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which was designed to prevent a deluge of special-interest money from corrupting elections.
The case opened a flood of anonymous campaign advertising in the 2010 election cycle – spending levels sure to be surpassed in this presidential election year.
Republicans cheered the Citizens United decision, arguing that limits on corporate campaign spending infringes on the First Amendment.
"The Supreme Court correctly ruled that Congress may not ban political speech based on the identity of the speaker," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said during a speech last month at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Democrats disagree. Pelosi on Thursday said the deluge of anonymous campaign cash triggered by Citizens United tramples on the national ideal that each citizen has equal say, creating a "plutocracy" where individual voices are drowned out by "the checkbooks of the very, very few."
"It is in the interest of our democracy that we have accountability and transparency," she said.
The Disclose Act does not limit the amount of money super-PACs and other outside groups can raise and spend on elections. But it would force unions and corporations, including government contractors, to reveal all political contributions above $10,000 and take public credit for the political ads they sponsor.
"Voters have a right to know who is bankrolling these campaigns," Van Hollen said.
McConnell last month said that, despite the changes to the bill, his position hasn't changed.
"This is nothing less than an effort by the government itself to exposes its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies," he told the audience at AEI. "And that should concern every one of us."
Democrats – who are well aware that their bill has no chance of being taken up by the GOP-controlled House – filed a discharge petition this week in hopes of gathering the 218 signatures needed to force a floor vote on the bill.
Van Hollen conceded that the polarized political environment presents an uphill battle for those signatures.
"A number of Republicans have, privately, indicated that they're totally in favor of the Disclose bill," Van Hollen said, "but the Republican leadership has been very clear … that they don't want to allow any kind of transparency."
Senate Democrats are also pressuring Republicans to support more transparency surrounding political donations. On Tuesday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced a version of the Disclose Act similar to Van Hollen's bill.
Senate Democrats are expected to bring the bill up for a floor vote early next week.