Bill on political ad disclosures falls a little short in Senate

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, called the bill
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, called the bill "a partisan effort, pure and simple." Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the bill's chief architect, said he will try again. (Ann Heisenfelt - Getty Images)
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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked legislation requiring fuller disclosure of the money behind political advertising, derailing a major White House initiative and virtually ensuring an onslaught of attack ads during this year's midterm election season.

The vote -- in which Democrats fell just shy of the 60 votes needed to avoid a GOP filibuster -- marks a major setback for President Obama, who has railed against the influence of special interests in elections and pushed for the legislation as a counterpoint to court rulings freeing up the use of corporate money in politics.

The development also represents a significant victory for Senate Republicans and business groups, which portrayed the measure as a Democratic attempt to tilt the playing field by discouraging corporations and other likely critics from spending money on political ads. The measure is the latest in a series of Democratic initiatives that have been approved by the House only to die in the Senate, including comprehensive climate-change legislation abandoned last week.

Opponents of the Disclose Act -- which would force corporations, unions and other groups to reveal the donors behind their political ads -- said the vote marked a victory for free-speech rights, including the rights of corporations to spend as much as they want on political advertising.

"This bill is a partisan effort, pure and simple. . . . This bill is about protecting incumbent Democrats from criticism ahead of the November election," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said before the vote.

Democrats, however, portrayed the legislation as an attempt to force transparency on political advertising by outside groups and corporations, activity that is often cloaked in anonymity and is now largely unrestrained by campaign finance restrictions. Party leaders signaled Tuesday that they will seek to make the issue part of a broader line of attack on Republicans as backing corporate interests on such issues as Wall Street reform and the health-care overhaul.

"With this vote, we're taking sides," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the chief architect of the Senate bill.

The official tally showed 57 votes in favor of moving the legislation forward, but that did not include Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) -- who voted no in order to preserve the ability to reintroduce the measure -- or Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who was absent but signaled that he would vote yes if given the chance.

Schumer vowed to try again after the August recess, and he said he is open to changes to attract GOP support. But Tuesday's vote effectively quashes any chance of enacting disclosure requirements for the 2010 midterms, which appear likely to include record expenditures by outside groups and corporations.

The legislation was drafted as a response to the 5 to 4 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court found that corporations had the same rights as individuals to engage in political speech and could therefore spend as much as they wanted for or against specific candidates. Obama pointedly criticized the ruling during his State of the Union address, prompting an unusual public objection weeks later by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

One example of the effect of the Citizens United case came to light this week in Minnesota, where a Republican-leaning political group reported accepting $150,000 from Target and $100,000 from Best Buy. The group, MN Forward, is running TV ads supporting state Rep. Tom Emmer, the likely GOP nominee for governor. The case also illustrates the perils of disclosure for corporations: Democrats and gay advocacy groups have threatened boycotts in light of the contributions.

Under the bill defeated Tuesday, corporations and most interest groups would be subject to stricter financial disclosure requirements.

The measure would also broaden restrictions on foreign-controlled companies and would require heads of companies and interest groups to appear on camera during their political spots.

Obama told reporters Monday that "a vote to oppose these reforms is nothing less than a vote to allow corporate and special-interest takeovers of our elections."

But the legislation attracted opposition from a strange-bedfellows group including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO, which said it "reluctantly" opposed the legislation after Schumer removed an exemption benefiting unions. An exemption for the National Rifle Association irritated many Democrats and liberal groups but had no apparent impact on Tuesday's vote.

Both sides claimed de facto support from the Supreme Court. McConnell and others said the Disclose Act would run counter to the high court's decision in Citizens United by chilling the free-speech rights of corporations and nonprofit groups. But the bill was written largely on the basis of a lesser-noticed decision, in which the court ruled 8 to 1 in favor of the government's ability to enforce disclosure requirements for organizations that participate in the political process.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, criticized Republicans for voting against the bill after voicing support for transparency in politics.

But the Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes most campaign-finance restrictions, called the vote "a key victory for supporters of free political speech" and accused Democrats of seeking to enact the legislation for electoral advantage.

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