By Kevin Bogardus and Rachel Leven - 03/21/12 05:56 PM EDT
Senate Democrats revived the Disclose Act on Wednesday in an election-year push against the “spectacle” of campaign spending by super-PACs.
The legislation was crafted by a taskforce of Democratic senators who were asked to craft a response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, a ruling in 2010 that allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on election activities. Since that ruling, political spending by super-PACs and nonprofit groups outside of campaigns has been on the rise.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said the rise of super-PACs shows the need for what he called “Disclose Act 2.0,” after its forerunner that was introduced last Congress.
The new version of the Disclose Act would require any group that spends $10,000 or more on election ads, or any other political activity, to file a disclosure report with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) within 24 hours. Groups would also have to file a new report for each additional $10,000 spent, disclose donors who gave $10,000 or more and provide a statement from the group’s head ratifying that there was no coordination with any campaign, which is illegal.
The bill also contains a “stand by your ad” provision, which would require the heads of the groups to include an “I approve this message” disclaimer in campaign ads.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful lobby force and a heavy political spender, was a vocal opponent to the Disclose Act last Congress, and attacked the new bill as a "politically-motivated" attack on free speech.
”It is unfortunate that certain politicians want to single out and stifle the speech of one group — the business community — under the guise of 'disclosure.' This is a transparent, politically-motivated effort to seek out and punish a competing viewpoint in the political discourse,” said Blair Latoff, a Chamber spokeswoman.
“Rather than pursue these partisan games, we respectfully suggest that the Senate’s time might be better spent passing its first budget in three years or moving forward on one of the many House-passed jobs bills," Latoff said.
The bill comes more than a month after Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced similar legislation in the House. The DISCLOSE 2012 Act in the House has 161 co-sponsors and includes many of the same provisions as the Senate bill, including “stand by your ad.”
Van Hollen hailed the Senate bill and noted the similarities to his own legislation.
"We have worked closely with our Senate counterparts on this important legislation to require the disclosure of donors responsible for campaign-related expenditures," Van Hollen said through a spokesman. "The enactment of these [similar] provisions would provide the much needed transparency that is vital to ensuring open and fair elections. I look forward to working with the Senate to advance this important legislation."
Senate Democrats pointed to the Republican presidential primary as evidence that super-PACs are having an outsized influence on elections.
“It looks to me like in the result in the Republican primary is the guy with the biggest checkbook is the one who wins,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.). “We are now in an auction situation in my mind. That’s what really is going on.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the top messaging strategist for Senate Democrats, said voters are fed up with the negative political ads flooding their airwaves.
“It’s no longer hypothetical. The public is now living with the aftermath of the Citizens United decision. Every time they turn on their TV sets, an endless stream of negative ads paid for by unaccountable, outside groups is drowning out all other voices, including the candidates themselves,” he said.
Schumer also said Democrats stripped down the Disclose Act to garner more support, and predicted Republicans would have a hard time opposing it.
“It is now disclosure and disclaimer. Plain and simple. And that makes it have a better chance of passing,” Schumer said. “We think Republicans are going to have a hard time making excuses for not supporting this new effort, and it has a good chance of passing.”
Republicans opposed the bill last Congress because they said it would limit people’s First Amendment rights. They also argued the bill was designed to protect incumbent Democratic lawmakers from being voted out of office.
In a statement Wednesday, watchdogs praised the new legislation as “essential” to closing campaign finance loopholes. Among those groups were Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, which have sent letters to federal agencies asking them to take action against outside groups’ often undisclosed political spending.
The task force of Democratic senators has also sent letters to federal agencies asking for action on political spending.
Asked about a legislative strategy for the bill, Schumer told reporters to “stay tuned,” and mentioned there will be a hearing on the bill next week in the Senate Rules Committee.
The bill is a reintroduction of similar legislation that came close to passing last Congress. That bill won 59 votes in the Senate in 2010, falling one vote shy of overcoming a Republican-led filibuster.
The bill’s sponsors will need to find GOP supporters this year in order to pass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. Thirty-four senators have signed on to co-sponsor the legislation so far, but not a single Republican is on board.
Whitehouse said he hasn’t personally talked to any GOP senators yet, but that he will begin that process now that there is a bill to discuss.
The House version of Disclose has two provisions that the Senate's version does not, according to a Whitehouse aide.
"Aside from minor technical differences, the main difference between the bills is that ours does not include the shareholder protection and lobbyist disclosure provisions that are in the House bill," the aide explained.
One of the provisions the aide referred to would require companies and outside spending groups to report campaign-related spending to shareholders and members. The other would also require lobbyists to report their campaign-related spending with their lobbying activities.
— This story was last updated at 2:56 p.m.