The DISCLOSE Act and the Public's Right to Know

Before every election, Americans are exposed to thousands of political messages. Information about who is paying for all that speech is vital to our ability to assess it and make decisions about which candidates we want to support.
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What surely is the most neglected and among the most important issues of this election season will likely be aired for at least a few hours in the Senate early next week. It would be a wonderful surprise if senators make the most of it, and voters should pay close attention to those who don't.

The DISCLOSE Act (S 3369), a simple effort to allow Americans to know who is spending big money to influence our elections, hits the Senate floor on Monday. Stripped down from legislation that passed the House in 2010 but fell a single vote short in the Senate, the bill would close a huge loophole that lets individuals, corporations and labor unions secretly invest in politics by funneling their money through tax-exempt non-profit organizations that are exempt from disclosure requirements.

More than $130 million in secret money sailed through this loophole and into the 2010 elections; hundreds of millions more are flowing into this year's races for control of the White House and Congress.

Introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, (D-RI), and 28 co-sponsors, the new DISCLOSE bill was redrafted to address objections to the 2010 version. Gone are meaningful provisions that would have banned political spending by government contractors and required broadcast ads to list the names of at least some of the donors paying for them. Language that the bill's Republican opponents alleged would force corporate spending into the open while shielding labor spending from disclosure also has been removed -- the new bill treats labor and management spending in exactly the same way. Last but certainly not least, the bill would not take effect until next year, so it would have no impact on this year's elections.

Still, Republicans are promising a filibuster to block the Senate from debating the bill, amending it or taking a final vote to pass or kill it. That tactic worked in 2010 and DISCLOSE supporters concede that they are unlikely to muster the 60-vote super majority needed to overcome it this year.

That's a shame, because the case against DISCLOSE is nothing short of laughable.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-KY) once a vocal supporter of political transparency, now leads the opposition to DISCLOSE; he peddles the nonsense that it's part of a plot to push corporations out of politics. Rather than anger powerful incumbents by openly spending money to oppose them, or invite consumer retaliation by supporting unpopular candidates, companies will close their checkbooks and remain silent, McConnell argues.

The fact is that corporations were openly involved in our elections long before the Citizens United decision allowed them to use corporate money to support or oppose candidates. For decades, hundreds of companies have attached their names to political action committees (PACs), financed by publicly-disclosed donations from their executives and employees; if those companies were seriously worried about reprisals or threatened by politically-inspired boycotts, they'd have shut down their PACs long ago.

And to whatever extent that government officials or irate customers act to cancel contracts or do actual damage to businesses because of their political spending, there are laws in place to punish those involved.

What's really at stake in the DISCLOSE debate is the public's right to know. Before every election, Americans are exposed to hundreds -- even thousands -- of political messages. Information about who is paying for all that speech is vital to our ability to assess it and make decisions about which candidates we want to support.

And disclosure yields added benefits after Election Day, when the people, groups and companies that pay for all that speech come calling on the officials it helped elect. Disclosure lets us connect the dots when officials repay donors by rewriting the laws that tax or regulate their businesses or associations; the knowledge that we can detect such corruption can keep it from happening.

In short, DISCLOSE is a critical line of defense in the battle to make ours a government truly "of, by and for the people." Liberals who worry that big businesses are trying to buy our democracy, and conservatives who have the same fear about the influence of big labor, should support it with equal fervor.

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