By Chris Van Hollen and Mike Castle
Thursday, June 17, 2010; A21
On Jan. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court threw out 100 years of established law and legal precedent that protected the integrity of our political process against direct campaign expenditures by big-money special interests. With Americans already struggling to have their voices heard in Washington, the ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission dramatically expanded the ability of special interests to influence the political process.
The most important things Congress can do in response to this ruling are to increase transparency and shine a light on the special interests trying to influence elections. That is why we have introduced the bipartisan Disclose (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Elections) Act. The bill requires the disclosure of political spending by special interests, keeps foreign-controlled companies from affecting America's elections, and ensures that entities that receive large amounts of taxpayer money can't turn around and spend that money in campaigns. By bringing campaign spending into the light, we empower voters to make more informed decisions.
The Disclose Act ensures that Americans will know when a company or labor union is seeking to influence campaigns. It prevents special interests from hiding behind third-party groups, sham organizations and dummy corporations by requiring the heads of organizations to "stand by their ad" the same way political candidates must take personal responsibility for their ads. Moreover, the bill mandates that an organization seeking to influence an election list the top five contributors onscreen at the end of its ad.
American elections should be decided by Americans, not foreign corporations. Under the Disclose Act, U.S. corporations that are controlled by foreign interests and foreign companies -- such as BP and those owned by hostile foreign governments -- would be barred from making political expenditures in U.S. elections. Right now, Citgo -- a wholly owned subsidiary of the Venezuelan government -- could spend freely in American elections with minimal difficulty if the court's ruling is not addressed.
Finally, the Disclose Act prohibits organizations that receive large amounts of taxpayer money from using those funds to try to influence elections. Wall Street banks, for example, would not be allowed to take government money and recycle it in efforts to defeat lawmakers who are fighting to rein in the banks' irresponsible behavior. The last thing we need in this time of soaring deficits is for taxpayer money to be used to try to buy elections.
Some have raised concerns about proposals that allow a narrow exemption for certain reporting requirements for large, long-standing citizen-based organizations on the condition that they spend no corporate donations for campaign purposes. While we prefer our original bill, with equal treatment of all organizations, this legislation will still shine an unprecedented amount of sunlight on campaign expenditures. That is why Common Cause, Public Citizen, Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center and the League of Women Voters strongly support this bill.
Overwhelmingly, Americans support tougher campaign finance laws, polls show, including efforts to undo the damage done by Citizens United. The people recognize that this decision, if left unchecked, will allow shadowy special interests to engage in the buying and selling of elections.
Our legislation was crafted with input from Republicans, Democrats and a wide array of outside organizations. To date, the Senate bill has 47 co-sponsors and the House bill has 114.
Opponents of reform and transparency cannot argue against the merits of this bipartisan legislation, which simply places disclosure requirements on political activities. As Justice Louis Brandeis said, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." Ultimately, the Disclose Act gives the American people the power of information and protects our democracy from being bought and sold by special interests.
Chris Van Hollen is a Democratic representative from Maryland. Mike Castle is a Republican representative from Delaware.