Congress can protect midterm elections with the Disclose Act

Congress can protect midterm elections with the Disclose Act
© Greg Nash

There are just four months to go until the November midterm elections, and the influence of dark money political donations is already casting an unusually long shadow. We have seen Eric Greitens resign as governor of Missouri in shame when his ties to secret political donors came under scrutiny. The FBI is probing whether dark money from Russia was funneled through the National Rifle Association to help Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Tucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' Trump on Confederate flag: 'It's freedom of speech' MORE get elected. Nonprofits are getting tens of millions of dollars, some of the biggest dark money contributions to date, from individual dark money donors.

Our campaign finance system is broken. More than $900 million in dark money was spent by powerful interests in the last five election cycles to influence federal elections. This secret political spending permeates our elections, poisoning our political culture, corrupting our government, and resulting in policy decisions that do not help Americans.

Americans increasingly are demanding that elected leaders reform the system to end secret and foreign spending, as well as undue influence from corporations. In good news, bold federal legislation known as the Disclose Act of 2018 has been introduced to make our political system more accountable and transparent, and to return power to everyday Americans. Congress should pass this legislation now if we want the upcoming midterm elections to reflect the will of the people.

How did we get to this lamentable point? By now, most Americans are familiar with the 2010 Supreme Court case called Citizens United. In its ruling, the court allowed unlimited corporate political spending, paving a path that has led to an influx of large donations to newly created super PACs and dark money nonprofits, many of which fuel negative campaign ads. Wealthy special interests often run their political spending through super PACs and dark money organizations so they can remain secret.

To make matters worse, foreign citizens and foreign governments have exploited our lax laws to improperly influence U.S. elections. The FBI is investigating, and congressional Democrats are probing, whether the National Rifle Association, which is among America’s largest dark money organizations, received secret money from Russian friends of Vladimir Putin during the last presidential election. If true, this was part of Russia’s brazen attempt to meddle in our domestic politics.

Americans must demand that foreigners be forbidden to hide their political spending behind shell corporations and be stopped from steering money to dark money organizations in the United States. The Disclose Act, sponsored by Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrat asks Barr to preserve any records tied to environmental hacking probe Democrats warn Biden against releasing SCOTUS list Key Democrat accuses Labor head of 'misleading' testimony on jobless benefits MORE (D-R.I.) and Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineOVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change DOJ whistleblower: California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' Hillicon Valley: Apple's developer dispute draws lawmaker scrutiny of App Store | GOP senator blocks bill to expand mail-in and early voting | Twitter flags Trump tweet on protesters for including 'threat of harm' MORE (D-R.I.), would be a giant step forward toward sensible accountability and transparency. The legislation centers on disclosure, closing loopholes that shadowy political groups have exploited to hide their donors. The bill requires that organizations spending at least $10,000 on political ads must disclose the identities of their donors.

The Disclose Act also requires that organizations not only report more of their election ads to the public, but that they report promptly, so the public can know in real time who is pushing the negative messages that bombard us. The bill also strengthens bans on foreign political spending, particularly spending done through U.S. corporations. For example, U.S. corporations that are significantly controlled or owned by foreign entities would be prohibited from spending in U.S. elections. The legislation would also require more transparency from shell companies, which often are used to launder foreign money into elections.

The Disclose Act includes an updated “stand by your ad” provision, requiring leaders of unions, corporations and other organizations to identify that they are behind a political ad, just as candidates are required to do. Finally, the legislation repeals controversial partisan provisions that now thwart necessary campaign finance regulations, so the Securities and Exchange Commission and Internal Revenue Service would be freed up to finish new rules governing transparency for corporate political spending. The legislation would also remove the ban on federal contractors disclosing their political contributions as part of bidding processes.

Elections heavily influenced by special interests, corporations or foreigners lead to policies that do not reflect the will of everyday Americans, and they hurt disadvantaged and minority communities across the country. It is little wonder that Americans think the current system cannot fairly address important issues of the day. More disclosure will help turn things around, increasing public confidence that government officials are not in the pockets of big money interests.

Even former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative who helped decide Citizens United, supported transparency for political activities. He wrote that “requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.” We may not yet be doomed. But our system is undergoing an extreme stress test where officials are being corrupted by wealthy donors and foreign entities who influenced the 2016 election. It is time to demand bold solutions and hold secret political spenders accountable.

Michael Sozan, a former chief of staff in the Senate, is a senior fellow for democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress.