Arguing that money in politics subverts democracy, House Democrats on Thursday introduced legislation requiring super-PACs and other political groups to reveal their donors.
The Democrats are hoping the Disclose Act will mitigate the effects of a two-year-old Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates to unlimited — and anonymous — campaign spending by corporations, unions and other well-heeled interests.
" 'Disclose' means just that," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during a press briefing in the Capitol. "We want to know where this secret, substantial money is coming from that is going into campaigns."
Pelosi said the current election system, under which congressional candidates must often raise millions of dollars to be competitive, discourages too many qualified people from running at all. Changing the rules "so the role of money is greatly diminished," she added, will go a long way toward bringing more women and minorities to Washington.
"My experience as one who's tried to encourage more participation is that people say, 'How would I ever raise the money?' " Pelosi said. "That shouldn't be the reason why people run or do not run for public office."
Sponsored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the Disclose Act takes on the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the high court ruled that funding caps on corporate ads targeting individual candidates violate the Constitution's right to free speech. The ruling effectively dismantled parts of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which was designed to prevent a deluge of corporate money in elections.
The Democrats' new proposal would not put limits on the amount of money super-PACs and other outside groups can raise and spend on elections. But it would force them to reveal their donors and take public credit for the ads they sponsor.
"You should have nothing to fear unless you've got something to hide," Van Hollen, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Thursday.
A stronger version of the Disclose Act passed the House in 2010, when Democrats controlled the chamber, but failed to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster in the Senate.
Pelosi said Thursday that she's "not overwhelmingly optimistic" the bill will move while Republicans maintain their House majority.
"The lack of transparency and accountability has served them well," Pelosi charged.
Democrats vowed to use the issue on the campaign trail to attack Republicans, particularly the many Tea Party-backed freshmen who promised to fight for a more open and responsive Congress.
"This is going to be the dividing line between those of us who believe in honesty and openness — reform [and] transparency — and those who will continue to protect the powerful," said Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "We're going to hold them accountable."
Watchdog groups welcomed the revival of the Disclose Act and hammered Republicans for resisting the move toward greater transparency.
"It is both a travesty and betrayal of the professed principles of the many in Congress who claim to support open government and honest elections that the majority of congressional Republicans continue to block transparency of money in politics," Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, said in a statement. "Many Republicans supported transparency until very recently."
President Obama, a vocal critic of the Citizens United decision, fueled the fierce debate over campaign finance this week when he embraced a super-PAC — Priorities USA Action — that's working for his reelection.
House Democrats defended Obama's decision, arguing Republican opposition to election-finance reform has left Democrats little choice but to use all the tools available to win in November — even if it means embracing a super-PAC system they oppose.
"I'm a big baseball fan," Israel said. "I've never been to a baseball game, ever, where one side was told, 'You don't get bats.' "
Pelosi said House Democrats would use their super-PAC as a tool for electing lawmakers who will dismantle the system.
"Our pitch is, 'Support us if you want to elect reformers to do away with these PACs,' " Pelosi said.