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Legacy Content / RULES OF THE GAME

Down To Zero For DISCLOSE Act

Last-Minute Changes Might Make A Point, But They Probably Won't Be Enough To Get It Passed

July 26, 2010

Senate Democrats have rewritten the DISCLOSE Act, their answer to the Supreme Court's ruling to free up corporate and union political spending, in a last-ditch bid to win over reluctant GOP moderates. But the bill remains in trouble.

A Senate vote on the DISCLOSE Act scheduled for Tuesday appears calculated more to score political points than to actually enact legislation. Despite President Obama's strong endorsement, the bill has foundered since virtually the moment Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., introduced it in April.

Opponents appear unmoved by Schumer's changes. If anything, they may win some new allies.


The U.S. Chamber of Commerce mounted an aggressive public relations and lobbying campaign to kill the legislation, labeling it a partisan power grab by Democrats. The bill sets out to require unions and corporations to publicly report the top donors paying for their political ads. But it includes controversial spending bans for government contractors and for substantially foreign-owned corporations that became flash points for criticism.

The House narrowly approved the bill last month, but not before amending it to include an exemption for large, long-established membership groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club. Some reform advocates almost jumped ship as a result, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., publicly blasted the NRA carve-out.

Reform advocates sought to win over Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., without success. Attempts to woo moderate Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe appear to have yielded little fruit. Given an inevitable GOP filibuster led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a champion of political deregulation, only a surprising shift in the wind could save the bill now.

Schumer's rewrite of the bill sets out in part to blunt the argument that it favors labor unions. For example, the bill requires groups to report all transfers of $50,000 to and from affiliates, but a House-added provision had exempted dues from that disclosure rule. Schumer's new version of DISCLOSE strips out that exemption, meaning groups must report large dues transfers as well.

"That is sort of an entreaty to moderate Republicans who are still considering the bill," said one Democratic Senate aide. The Schumer rewrite also tweaks the disclaimer requirements to eat up less time from ads, and nixes an anti-BP amendment by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, that would have banned political activity by groups with Outer Continental Shelf drilling leases.

Schumer also added a measure -- long sought by reform advocates -- that would require senators to file quarterly campaign finance reports electronically, instead of on paper. This was inserted "in the interests of more clear disclosure, more sunlight," the Senate aide said.

The changes are an attempt "to make even more clear that the legislation is not intended to advantage one type of outside group over another," said Lisa Gilbert, democracy advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

U.S. PIRG and several pro-reform advocacy groups have lobbied intensely on Capitol Hill and in Maine to gin up grassroots pressure on Collins and Snowe. They have also toiled to debunk what they argue are myriad myths circulated about the DISCLOSE Act, including its pro-labor tilt, and to stress its noncontroversial purpose, namely transparency and disclosure.

"For years the opponents of campaign finance reform said all we needed was disclosure," said former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter, now president and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, during a conference call with other DISCLOSE backers last week. "And now that that's all we're going to get, they don't want us to have that either."

Against all odds, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is moving forward with plans to force a vote before Congress recesses in August. Last week he cleared the way for the bill to be discharged from the Rules and Administration Committee, which Schumer chairs, without a markup. Barring a schedule change, the Senate will vote on cloture Tuesday.

But opponents appear unmoved by Schumer's recent changes. If anything, they may win some new allies, such as the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association, whose leaders are not happy to see disclosure requirements reinstated for large dues transfers. Some Democrats suggest that union opposition might actually help make their case that the bill does not unfairly advantage the labor movement. So far, though, the bill's critics haven't budged.

"This bill is clearly designed to change the rules at the last minute to protect the traditional soft-money allies of the Democratic Party," said William J. McGinley, a partner at Patton Boggs who is one of the legislation's many critics. The bill favors large, established interest groups at the expense of new grassroots organizations, he maintained, and unconstitutionally regulates speakers based on their identity.

The DISCLOSE Act's real Achilles' heel may be the simple fact that it imposes new rules on not just corporations and labor unions, but on incorporated groups of all stripes -- from nonprofits to advocacy organizations and trade associations. This has alarmed not only business groups but some civil rights and progressive advocacy organizations as well. As McGinley put it, it's "a bill that touches every actor in the political process."

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