It's the Senate's turn to pass the Disclose Act

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

SENATORS ARE facing a simple, fateful decision: Do they want to allow millions of dollars from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals to pour, undisclosed, into U.S. elections? The key word is undisclosed. The existing crazy quilt of campaign finance reporting rules was already threadbare. Then the Supreme Court stepped in, ruling in the Citizens United case that corporations and labor unions could spend unlimited sums advocating the election or defeat of federal candidates. That made the implications of that regulatory patchwork far more dangerous.

Corporations now can funnel money to a trade association to target Representative Y or Senator X. The trade association must report its spending to the Federal Election Commission, but it doesn't have to say where the money comes from. Labor unions could set up front groups to do the same. Under another gap in disclosure rules, wealthy individuals who want to influence elections without the inconvenience of having their cash exposed can give money to nonprofit groups set up under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. Such organizations face limits on how much they can spend on election-related activities, but the limits are hardly an impediment. According to a report in Politico, conservatives recently created one such group, American Crossroads GPS. "I wouldn't want to discount the value of confidentiality to some donors," said its president, Steven Law.

The House last month passed a measure, known as the Disclose Act, that would strengthen disclosure rules. There are some flaws in the proposal -- for instance, it goes too far in prohibiting independent expenditures by government contractors. And there is an unfortunate exemption from the disclosure requirements, demanded by the National Rifle Association as the price of not opposing the measure, for large, well-established national organizations. Nonetheless, the essence of the legislation is correct and critical to making certain that elections are not secretly influenced by special interests.

As the Supreme Court itself said in the Citizens United case, "The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."

The Senate faces a vote, perhaps as early as this week, about whether to kill or proceed with the Disclose Act.

Senators who care about maintaining a transparent campaign finance system should vote to go forward with the measure. Its shortcomings can be addressed, but its central focus is critical to ensuring that democracy is not for sale to the highest bidder.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company