Senate to Vote on Disclosure of Political Ad Funding

Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, right, Rep. Keith Ellison, left, and Rep. Steve Israel, speak about theDISCLOSE act on Capitol Hill.

Campaign finance reform groups expect a Senate vote this morning on a motion to advance legislation requiring disclosure of donors to groups that are spending millions of dollars on political ads in the run-up to the 2012 elections.

Reformers aren’t sure they can pick up enough Republican votes to reach the 60-vote margin for cloture on the so-called DISCLOSE Act — or any GOP votes, for that matter. Every Republican senator who voted when it last came up in 2010 voted against it.

“It’s very important that all senators be on public record” regarding their positions on the disclosure legislation, said Fred Wertheimer, a veteran reformer and president of the group Democracy 21. Wertheimer told BNA there is “an unfolding national scandal” involving tens of millions of dollars in unlimited — often undisclosed — contributions being pumped into organizations sponsoring ads in the presidential campaign and key Senate and House races.

If passed, the DISCLOSE Act could have a major impact on Republican-leaning groups like American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. These organization and others like them reportedly plan to spend up to $1 billion to impact the November elections.

Democratic-leaning super-PACs and 501(c) groups also have been active in this year’s campaign, but they appear to be raising and spending far less money — and having much less impact — than the GOP groups.

Republican leaders, especially Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have fought hard to defeat the DISCLOSE legislation, arguing that disclosure could lead to harassment of those funding political ads. He says the real goal of reformers and Democrats calling for disclosure is to cut off the money for groups favoring the GOP.

Besides applying to Section 501(c) organizations, the new bill would also speed up disclosure of those donating to super-PACs. These organizations already are required to report their donors to the Federal Election Commission, but sometimes do so after an election.

An earlier version of the legislation would have required an organization sponsoring campaign-related TV or radio ads to list its top funders in the ad — and to have the organization’s leader appear in the ad and approve the message. However, this “stand-by-your ad” provision has been dropped from the latest version.

The new version of the bill (S. 3369) was introduced July 10 by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and placed on the Senate calendar, making it eligible for a cloture motion.

Reform groups hope that public pressure in favor of disclosure might prompt some Republican senators to break ranks with McConnell on the next vote. Reformers have been lobbying individual Republicans but do not know yet if they have won any of their votes.

The call to strengthen campaign finance disclosure laws came in response to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down decades-old restrictions on corporate and union spending to influence campaigns. The ruling has sparked a big increase in funding of independent political groups sponsoring ads that fault or favor particular candidates.

The original DISCLOSE Act was considered by Congress following the Citizens United ruling. The bill passed the House, which was controlled by Democrats at that time, but the bill fell one vote short of overcoming a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Even if the Senate passes the new version of the bill, it is unlikely to be to be brought up in the House by GOP leaders.

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