Democrats' campaign bill forces execs to stand by their ads

The Democrats’ long-awaited campaign finance bill would force top corporate executives, union officials and top donors to stand by political ads just like politicians must do, according to a summary of the most recent version of the bill obtained by The Hill.

Democrats for two weeks have been on the brink of unveiling their measure, designed to counteract the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, but they have continued to delay it while looking for a Republican Senate co-sponsor.

With Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the main co-sponsors, poised to introduce it next week and begin the push for passage by July 4, a summary of the bill’s details began

circulating among staffers this week.

“On Feb. 11th, I released proposed legislative framework in response to [the Citizens United] decision,” Van Hollen said in the summary. “I have been soliciting input from a number of my colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, as I finalize legislation for introduction next week.”

The Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates to unlimited spending by corporations, unions and other groups in individual campaigns. The bill’s title, the DISCLOSE Act, reflects the authors’ emphasis on transparency. The acronym stands for Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections.

The bill would force strict disclosure requirements for ads, including a mandate that CEOs, top officials and donors appear on camera to “approve” messages. It also wouldn’t let major donors hiding behind other groups remain in the shadows.

“In order to seek out the real money behind the ad, this legislation will drill down several layers and require the top contributor directing the funds to also ‘stand by the ad,’” the summary said.

In addition, the bill would require the top five contributors to an organization to be listed on screen or in the radio ad.

It would allow political observers and the general public to know in real time where the money for the ads is coming from. Any organization that funds political advertisements would be forced to disclose its

campaign activity and transfers of money to other groups that can then be used for campaign-related activity to the Federal Election Commission “within 24 hours.” The groups funding the ads also must disclose who has donated $1,000 or more to the organization’s general fund. Or the group could set up a campaign-related activity account and disclose only donors who have agreed to fund political advertisements and who have cut checks for $1,000 or more.

The bill would also explicitly ban contributions from companies with a 20 percent or greater foreign ownership stake, foreign nationals compromising a majority of its board of directors, or a foreign national who “directs, dictates or controls” U.S. operations.

Another provision would allow corporate shareholders and union members to know how their money is being spent. It requires corporations, unions and other groups to disclose spending on political advertisements and advocacy on their websites within 24 hours after filing with the FEC, as well as in their annual and periodic reports.

It also tries to curb the appearance of corruption and possible misuse of taxpayer funds, by barring any entity with a government contract worth more than $50,000 from spending money in elections. Similarly, government contractors or firms that have received and not repaid Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds will not be allowed to spend money on political advertising and advocacy.

More broadly, the bill seeks to prevent any coordination that could occur between candidates and corporations. It prohibits coordination between a candidate and outside group on ads that reference a candidate from the time period beginning 90 days before a primary and running through the general election.

Even as Van Hollen and Schumer are poised to introduce the bill, three House Republicans have accused them of trying to rush the campaign finance bill through in time to impact the 2010 elections without providing enough public scrutiny and deliberation.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and two others on the House Administration Committee, the panel with jurisdiction over election law, say their attempts to meet with Van Hollen have been ignored.

More than a month ago, Lungren, the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, sent a letter to Van Hollen and Democratic Chairman Robert Brady calling for a “true bipartisan process” and return to regular order, including holding committee hearings and at least one field hearing outside Washington.

Van Hollen did not respond to the letter. Brady acknowledged receipt of it but did not agree to sit down with the Republicans.

“Changing the rules on the conduct of elections always requires great care,” says the letter, signed by Lungren and Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Gregg Harper (R-Miss.). “It implicates core constitutional rights, and it raises the risk that one party will rig the rules to help its own candidates.”

Van Hollen spokesman Doug Thornell said his boss has worked hard to reach out to both sides.

“Earlier this week, Republican Congressman Mike Castle announced his support making this bipartisan legislation,” he said. “Our framework for a legislative response has been public for more than two months and if the authors of this letter are supportive of the framework we look forward to them joining us in addressing this radical decision. If not, then we will have to agree to disagree on the importance of transparency and the role powerful special interests should play in our elections and democracy.”