Senate must pass DISCLOSE Act before fall elections

Posted July 26, 2010, at 6:57 p.m.

It’s a whole new ballgame for campaign advertising this season, and, unfortunately, one with very few referees. The Supreme Court’s ruling this year in Citizens United v. FEC means that corporations, unions and other organizations now may make unlimited political expenditures for campaign ads — and they can do it secretly.

As individual voters, it is difficult to imagine how we can compete with corporations and others that not only have vested interests in Washington, but also millions of dollars to make sure they can reward or punish elected officials at election time.

What we can do, what the DISCLOSE Act now pending in the Senate proposes, is to require these special interests to stand by their ads — to disclose to voters whose money paid for which advertisement. This is not only common sense, it is crucial if voters are to remain the cornerstone of our democracy. Secret money, especially foreign secret money, is dangerous and has no place in our democracy.

And Maine voters agree. More than 80 percent of Mainers polled recently said they strongly support campaign finance disclosure and transparency.

Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe now are in the unique position of being able to decide if Maine voters will get their wish for greater transparency. Their votes on the DISCLOSE Act will be votes on the most important government integrity reform measure to be considered by the Senate in this Congress.

In the wake of Citizens United, the DISCLOSE Act is essential. It requires corporate CEOs to stand by their ads, just like candidates, and exposes special interest groups behind last-minute attack and sham ads. It stops manipulation of elections by hard to track “hit” groups and prevents U.S. corporations controlled by foreign — or even hostile — governments from pumping secret money into our elections.

If we fail to act, there is nothing preventing a foreign company from funneling millions of dollars into groups that secretly fund advertising against any member of Congress — Republican or Democrat — who tried to hold that company accountable.

Special interests now are permitted to use their power and money to influence our elections without having to own up to their words. The closer we get to November, the more disingenuous and misleading the advertising will become.

In a recent statement, Sen. Collins’ spokesman Kevin Kelley expressed a few of the senator’s concerns about the bill.

Among her concerns is that the bill does not treat all organizations equally, and favors labor unions. In fact, the DISCLOSE Act establishes new disclosure requirements for corporations, labor unions, advocacy groups and trade associations. It is fair and equitable legislation that does not favor unions or either political party.

The disclosure provisions of the DISCLOSE Act are modeled on the disclosure provisions in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, or BCRA, co-sponsored by Sens. Collins and Snowe. Citizens United upheld the constitutionality of these provisions, recognizing the basic right of citizens to know the sources of money behind campaign expenditures. The court specifically noted the problems that result when groups run ads, “while hiding behind dubious and misleading names.”

Sens. Collins and Snowe both have questioned the timing of the bill. We feel the timing is appropriate: The Supreme Court has endorsed disclosure, and the legislation simply responds to the new rules the court decision imposed only a few months ago, after election season already had begun. To be effective, the DISCLOSE Act must be enacted before the 2010 congressional elections.

The legislation as passed by the House is not perfect, but Sens. Collins and Snowe should work with supporters of the DISCLOSE Act to resolve any concerns. This is an approach they have taken many times before, and is a refreshing change from the partisanship that has threatened to stall or kill reforms our country so desperately needs.

The DISCLOSE Act is the most important campaign finance bill since McCain-Feingold, so it’s important we get this right. Although their leaders in Washington are opposed to transparency, our senators never have shied away from independent action in the past — we trust they will make the right choice on this legislation as well.

Someone has to lose this November; we sincerely hope it’s not the voters.

Barbara McDade is president of the League of Women Voters of Maine. Ann M. Luther is the group’s former president.

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