WASHINGTON — The House vote Wednesday to impose new disclosure requirements for corporations that fund campaign ads was a nail biter, with the last few votes eked out in overtime, 219 to 206. But the road in the Senate — and to the president’s desk — could be tougher still.
The bill, known as the Disclose Act, aims to “fix” a recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits to corporate spending on election campaigns. House Democrats called the campaign-finance decision “a threat to democracy.”
In anticipation of a surge in special-interest spending to influence the 2010 midterm elections, the bill requires corporations – profit or nonprofit – to disclose their spending on campaign ads. In addition, corporate CEOs must appear in the ads they finance, and nonprofits must disclose their top donors.
Some corporations – those accepting TARP bailout funds, federal contractors, or foreign corporations such as BP – would be banned from spending on US elections altogether.
“Voters have a right to know when they see an ad going on with a nice-sounding name – the Fund for a Better America – they have a right to know who is paying for it. They have a right to know if BP is paying for it. They have a right to know if any corporation or big-bucks individual is paying for it, because it’s a way to give them information to access the credibility of the ad,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, who chairs the campaign arm of the House Democratic caucus and who led the floor fight for the bill.
Special deal for the NRA
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle balked at a special deal that House sponsors worked out with the National Rifle Association – the lead opponent of the bill – that exempted the NRA, as well as other nonprofit giants such as AARP and the Sierra Club, from new disclosure requirements.
“They are auctioning off pieces of the First Amendment in this bill … if you’re on the lucky side,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R) of California, in a floor speech opposing the bill. “The bigger you are, the stronger you are, the less disclosure you have.”
Even Democrats supporting the legislation said they regretted the concessions to the NRA and others with memberships over 500,000.
“I wish there had been no carve-outs, but I understand the difficulty in getting the bill passed,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California. “It’s an effort to overcome a very considerable obstacle to passage,” he added, noting the NRA’s decision to drop its opposition after the exception was written into the draft bill.
Many nonprofits not included among those exempted from new requirements also oppose the bill.
“The bill requires more disclosure of smaller, newer, more controversial organizations than it does of larger, more established organizations. That’s the thing that really rankles here,” says Michael Macleod-Ball, chief legislative and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “That kind of imbalance in a regulatory regime is unfair.”
Next, the bill moves to the Senate, where Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York has a similar disclosure bill pending. Senate leaders say that passing the bill is a priority. But the Senate has been mired in partisan gridlock for months, and Democrats need at least one Republican vote to break a filibuster.
“It’s definitely a priority,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid, after Thursday’s House vote. “I can bring it up, but I need a Republican to pass it.” Minutes earlier, Senate Republicans (and one Democrat) had voted as a bloc to derail a bill to help the jobless, extend tax breaks, and help fiscally stressed states.
McCain’s role in campaign finance reform
The most likely Republican prospect, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, led a long legislative battle together with Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Minnesota to pass historic campaign finance legislation in 2002 that limited how much corporations and unions can spend to influence elections. Those limits were scrapped by a controversial US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission in January.
But McCain says he will be no part of advancing a bill that requires more disclosure of corporations than it does of labor unions. “It’s no surprise that Democrats craft a bill that favors their supporters,” he said, after the House vote.
President Obama urged the Senate to move quickly to pass the bill.
“The House bill is not perfect — I would have preferred that it include no exemptions,” said Mr. Obama, in a statement after the House vote. “But it mandates unprecedented transparency in campaign spending, and it ensures that corporations who spend money on American elections are accountable first and foremost to the American people.”