Top Democrats seek broad disclosure on campaign financing

By Dan Eggen
Thursday, April 29, 2010; 3:24 PM

Leading Democrats proposed bills Thursday that would impose broad disclosure requirements on corporations and unions that help fund political advertising, setting the stage for a debate over campaign financing in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections.

Under the proposals spearheaded by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), companies and unions would have to identify themselves on ads that they pay for; disclose information about such expenditures to shareholders and the public; and stand by the message of any ads through statements from a CEO or other top official, much as political candidates currently are required to do. The proposals would also bar government contractors and foreign-owned corporations -- defined as 20 percent of shareholders or more -- from spending money on U.S. elections.

The bills are aimed at blunting the impact of a January Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which permits companies and unions to spend unlimited funds for or against political candidates.

Top Democrats, including President Obama, criticized the decision and have identified the issue as a key legislative priority, part of a broader effort to cast Democrats on the side of Main Street and regular Americans against big businesses and their Republican allies. Polls show widespread opposition to the ruling among voters in both parties.

Unable to overturn a decision made on constitutional grounds, the Democrats are hoping to take advantage of another part of the ruling that upheld the legality of stringent disclosure requirements for political spending.

"Powerful special interests and their lobbyists should not be able to drown out the voices of the American people," Obama said Thursday. "The legislation introduced today would establish the toughest-ever disclosure requirements for election-related spending by big oil corporations, Wall Street and other special interests so the American people can follow the money and see clearly which special interests are funding political campaign activity and trying to buy representation in our government."

Opponents of the legislation, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the conservative Center for Competitive Politics, said Democrats were demonizing companies for exercising their First Amendment rights. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) directed particularly sharp criticism at Schumer and Van Hollen, noting their roles as key organizers behind Democratic fundraising and election efforts.

"Make no mistake about it, the campaign finance bill introduced this morning is not about reform, transparency, accountability or good government," McConnell said in a statement. "It is about election advantage, plain and simple. An effort to disregard the First Amendment and defy the Supreme Court in order to limit the speech of those who may disagree with you is an effort that has no place in this country."

Although Schumer has yet to find any GOP sponsors in the Senate, Van Hollen was accompanied at an afternoon news conference by Reps. Mike Castle (Del.) and Walter Jones (N.C.), the only two Republicans to sign onto the effort so far. The Schumer event featured Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), co-sponsor of the landmark campaign-finance legislation that was undercut in the Citizens United case; notably absent was Feingold's co-sponsor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long advocated tough campaign-finance restrictions but has stayed quiet this year amid a bitter GOP primary fight at home.

"This legislation will stop the funneling of big money through shadow groups in order to fund ads that are virtually anonymous," Schumer said. "We will, for the first time, follow the money."

Most advocates of campaign-finance restrictions applauded the legislation as a significant first step, although some argued that only full public financing of elections would truly reform the system.

Fred Wertheimer, a veteran campaign-finance expert who heads Democracy 21, said the legislation would apply equally to corporations, unions and nonprofits and gives donors control over whether they want their funds used for political purposes. "The legislation introduced today is fair and equitable, and not partisan, in its impact," Wertheimer said.

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