Campaign finance bill has GOP wary

Republicans’ reluctance to embrace a Democratic campaign finance bill may prove hard for them to explain because they have supported one of its key components on transparency in the past.

Campaign-finance watchdog groups expect Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to unveil their legislative response to Citizens United on Thursday after failing in their efforts to find a Senate Republican co-sponsor. Though Schumer said Wednesday afternoon he was still courting Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who has traditionally supported greater limits on campaign finance, as a co-sponsor, so far Rep. Mike Castle (Del.) is the sole Republican to agree to sign on to the bill.

ADVERTISEMENT
Both sides expect a pitched battle over Congress’s response to the landmark Supreme Court ruling. But even while Senate Republicans have been reluctant to publicly support the bill, its backers argue it will be hard for Republicans to oppose because they have argued vigorously in the past in favor of more disclosure rather than limits on campaign finance law.

“Disclosure has been a mainstay among Republicans who have argued historically for more sunlight instead of more restrictions on campaign giving and spending, so they will be hard-pressed to make an argument against it,” said U.S. PIRG’s Lisa Gilbert. “This is just one more reason that this legislation should receive robust bipartisan support.”

To make matters worse for opponents, the public seems to overwhelmingly disagree with the Supreme Court ruling. In a new nationwide Quinnipiac poll, 79 percent of those surveyed disapproved.

Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has spent his political career fighting more restrictions, in 2000 called for broad new disclosure requirements in response to an effort by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to crack down on so-called “527” political groups. At the time, the groups were raking in millions in unlimited donations from corporations and unions without being forced to disclose who the donors were or how the money was spent.

“Republicans are in favor of disclosure,” McConnell told Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” at the time. In fact, he said, the more disclosure, the better.

“If you’re going to do that, and the Senate voted to do that, and I’m prepared to go down that road, then it needs to be meaningful disclosure, Tim,” he said. “527s are just a handful of groups. We need to have real disclosure. And so what we ought to do is broaden the disclosure to include at least labor unions and tax-exempt business associations and trial lawyers so that you include the major political players in America. Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart declined to comment on the Schumer-Van Hollen bill before it is introduced and his boss could look over its details.

Asked if he would introduce the legislation Thursday, Schumer said only: “We’ll see.”

Snowe’s office did not respond to a request for comment about her position.

No one expects Republicans suddenly to embrace a bill aimed at undermining the power of the Citizens United decision. Republicans will most likely train their fire on provisions in the bill that don’t relate to transparency. “The devil is in the details,” one Senate GOP aide said.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 campaign finance ruling in January gives corporations, nonprofits and labor unions the freedom to spend unlimited amounts on individual campaigns ads and advocacy. Immediately following the decision, Democrats vowed to work to overturn it, or at least curb its effects by forcing businesses, trade associations and labor unions to disclose their involvement in funding broadcast advertisements or political advocacy of any kind.

Van Hollen and Schumer have said the bill would force strict new disclosure requirements for ads, including a mandate that CEOs, top officials and donors appear on camera to “approve” messages, just as politicians are required to do with their own political spots. The bill would also explicitly ban contributions from companies with a 20 percent or greater foreign ownership stake, as well as from government contractors or firms that have received and not repaid Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds.

Like most Republicans, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, welcomed the Citizens United decision as a long-overdue victory for free speech. He declined to comment on the Schumer-Van Hollen bill until it is introduced, but noted that he generally favors disclosure.

“I don’t like it when a large source of money is out there funding ads and is unaccountable,” he said. “To the extent we can, I tend to favor disclosure.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) also said he wants to see the details of the bill, but said the disclosure provisions “don’t seem like a bad idea to me.”

Even Democrats who voted in 2002 against the historic McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation, which imposed bans on soft money to political parties and other tough restrictions, spoke favorably about requiring corporations, labor unions and nonprofits to disclose donations and their funding of political ads.

“As a candidate, we have to disclose everything,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). “Shedding sunlight on who’s funding what is a good thing.”

Lincoln, however, said she didn’t know yet whether she would support the Schumer-Van Hollen bill.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who opposed McCain-Feingold in 2002, said he generally supports disclosure but will determine whether to support the measure based on whether it can pass constitutional muster. He also said he is not surprised that the Supreme Court struck down major provisions of McCain-Feingold.