April 21, 2018
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Following the Money

Don’t assume that a recent 5-4 Supreme Court decision has given corporations and labor unions a completely free hand to pump money into election campaigns. A bill introduced in the House and Senate would require them to tell exactly who is giving what and why.

The DISCLOSE Act, short for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections, is a demonstration of clever lawmaking.

The bipartisan sponsors decided against trying to overturn the high court’s controversial decision defining corporations, unions and advocacy groups as people and giving them the First Amendment right to call their political contributions exercises of free speech. Instead, the sponsors invoked the powerful light of publicity. They proposed stiff rules that donor organizations publicly identify themselves, with their top executives required to appear personally in television spots and speak on radio commercials.

When the high court made its sweeping decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, it reversed much of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act regulating campaign financing. But it rejected the notion that disclosure requirements were unconstitutional. With prompt disclosure, the court said, “Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”

That strong language by the Supreme Court undercuts the complaint by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the bill is an unconstitutional stifling of free speech. And it negates the argument by Theodore Olson, winning counsel in the Citizens Unite case, that the plain intent of the legislation was to “discourage people from exercising their constitutional right to free speech.”

The court’s words support President Barack Obama’s recent argument that Americans “have the right to know when some group such as ‘Citizens for a Better Future’ actually is financed by ‘Corporations for Weaker Oversight.”’

The Sunlight Foundation, a think tank devoted to government transparency, welcomed the bill but added the advice that the disclosures be made available online and that lobbying disclosures include the names of the lobbyists and also the names of the public officials being lobbied.

The legislation was introduced by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Two House Republicans, Michael Castle of Delaware and Walter Jones of North Carolina, have publicly supported it. The House Republican leader, John Boehner, dismissed the idea as “not serious.”

In the Senate, there are 42 co-sponsors, all Democrats except for one independent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Here is a good chance for Republican senators, including Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to strike a blow for a bipartisan move to protect elections from anonymous domination by wealthy special interest groups.

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