Citizens United demands disclosure law

In 2010, the Supreme Court ushered in a new era of corporate campaign spending in the case of Citizens United by giving corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. While the ultimate decision was a close 5-4 split, eight of the nine Justices gave full-throated support to disclosure, which they said brings “transparency that enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.” Unfortunately, the floodgates were opened to outside spending, but the disclosure has yet to follow.

At the time, many were concerned that corporations would be pressured to open up their corporate coffers for the purpose of making political expenditures but would prefer to do so anonymously to avoid the backlash from their customers or shareholders. Four years later, in light of experiencing the two most expensive elections in history since the decision, it appears that these fears were well-founded. Outside money has poured into campaigns and it has done so under the cover of darkness, as a cottage industry has emerged to funnel money from corporations and others, into federal elections through non-profit groups that are not required to disclose their donors. 

According to a recent report from researchers at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, many former members of Congress, congressional candidates, campaign and legislative staff, as well as some of the outside groups, agree with these concerns.

They complain about outside groups “hijacking” the campaigns from the candidates, pushing issues to extremes and focusing on divisive, polarizing negative advertising. Most disturbing are the ways that these outside expenditures impact how members of Congress vote on issues critical to their constituents and to our nation. After all, the public doesn’t know the identity of the donors behind the ads. In the end, they argue that the outside spending in today’s campaigns is fundamentally altering the ways that members of Congress do business, for the worse.

Just last week allegations were made that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) engaged in significant and possibly illegal coordination of undisclosed contributions. Whether it be at the federal or state level makes no difference, voters have a right to know who is trying to influence their government.

The flow of secret money distorts our electoral process and threatens the very basis of our democracy. Our elections are being outsourced to special interest organizations financed by unidentified donors. If corporations and others want to influence elections they should stand up and be identified. The American people have a right to know who is bankrolling a candidate, and recent surveys indicate that over 85 percent of the people favor donor disclosure. 

There is an obvious solution to address the corrupting influence of that flows from secret money in our elections. As Justice Brandies said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” It is time to shine the light behind the curtain to reveal who is providing the money to influence elections. The DISCLOSE Act, which I introduced in 2010, required such disclosure. It passed the House in 2010 but failed to pass the Senate. However, I have reintroduced the bill, HR 148, and will to do so in every Congress until it becomes law, because it is a vital step toward correcting the wrongs wrought by Citizens United. 

Every citizen has a right to know who is behind the ads that influence their votes.

Van Hollen has represented Maryland's 8th Congressional District since 2003. He sits on the Budget Committee and on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

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