For decades, the one piece of campaign finance reform that Democrats and Republicans agreedabout was the importance of disclosure. For example, in 2000, House Republican Amo Houghton explained that “[w]e need disclosure by section 527 organizations, but when 501(c) groups intervene in the political process, they should disclose what they are doing and who is paying for it as well.” Lately, though, the GOP has changed its mind about political transparency, and the current debate over increased disclosure requirements for independent election spending has sharply divided on partisan lines. Given the huge volumes of money being spent to swing the 2012 election — with millions being spent by non-profit 501(c) groups with secret donors — it’s long past time for a new bipartisan consensus in favor of transparency. Democrats like Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who recently introduced the DISCLOSE Act of 2012 in the Senate, are leading the way, but they need a new generation of Republican leaders to join them.
The DISCLOSE Act of 2012 represents a promising first step in implementing what both parties used to call for: making sure that all politically active groups — including super PACs, “social welfare” 501(c)(4) groups, unions, trade organizations, and corporations — disclose who funds their political activities. The new DISCLOSE Act is a simplified version of legislation proposed in 2010, which passed the House but, despite the support of 59 Senators, fell one vote shy of overcoming a Republican filibuster in the Senate. The new bill strips out the provisions that led to GOP opposition in 2010, and should have broad support.
The new DISCLOSE Act aims at a major problem with current disclosure law — the fact that disclosure of political activity is now essentially optional. Groups like 501(c)(4)s and unions that spend money on electioneering exploit a loophole created by an FEC rule. The regulation says these groups are only required to file a report if that donor expressly indicates that their contributions were made for a particular ad. Vanishingly few contributors do so, meaning that the voting public is bombarded by campaign ads funded by these groups, without any idea who is paying for the ads.