The U.S. Senate didn’t advance legislation that would require nonprofit groups to reveal who donates the millions of dollars they spend on campaign ads.
Yesterday’s vote on the Democratic proposal was 51-44, with 60 required to advance it. The measure, opposed by Republicans, is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 that removed limits on independent spending by corporations and labor unions. Democrats said they would seek another vote today.
Groups that kept their donors secret favored Republicans over Democrats in 2010 by $117 million to $13 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions. Such groups included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby, and Crossroads GPS, co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove.
Such spending overcame a Democratic fundraising edge in 2010 among candidates and party committees, helping Republicans win a U.S. House majority and increase their numbers in the Senate.
Former aides to President Barack Obama have set up a nonprofit group, Priorities USA, to raise money to support his re-election.
“Campaigns are no longer waged by candidates and parties fighting over ideas,” the bill’s chief sponsor, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said yesterday. “They are now waged by shadowy political attack groups posing as social welfare organizations.”
Republicans said the Democrats are trying to shut down groups that disagree with them.
“The primary goal of this bill is not good government or transparency, but targeted speech suppression,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. Democrats are trying “to protect themselves from citizens over their wildly unpopular policies and positions,” he said.
The legislation, known as the Disclose Act, would require groups that spend at least $10,000 on an election to report donations of more than $10,000 within 24 hours of spending the money.
Under current law, only political action committees are required to disclose their donors, who can give no more than $5,000 each year. The Citizens United ruling freed corporations and unions to use their general-treasury money for independent spending to support or oppose candidates.
The Federal Election Commission also approved creation of super-PACs, which can take unlimited donations. While donors to super-PACs are supposed to be disclosed, some contributors have used shell corporations to avoid identification.
For example, the super-PAC backing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future, received $235,000 from corporations created by payday lenders in the two months after Obama made a recess appointment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director, who oversees that industry.
None of the payday companies’ business interests were identified in disclosure filings. Bloomberg News identified the payday lenders through state corporate and other federal campaign finance records.
The Democratic bill would require such donations to be disclosed.
The Chamber of Commerce, other business groups, and Republican-leaning nonprofit groups sent a letter to lawmakers using them to reject the measure.
“The legislation is intended to facilitate retaliation against unpopular or unfavorable political views,” the letter said.
Groups that support campaign finance disclosure rules urged the Senate to pass the bill.
“Citizens are entitled to know the identities of the donors financing campaign expenditures to influence their votes, and the amounts they gave,” said the letter signed by leaders of the Campaign Legal Center, Public Citizen and the League of Women Voters.
The $10,000 threshold was designed to avoid requiring membership organizations, such as labor unions or the National Rifle Association, to disclose each donation to the group.
Republicans have said the Democratic measure is directed at corporate donors rather than labor unions. In terms of direct contributions, business interests have given 15 times more money to campaigns, PACs and outside groups than organized labor so far for the 2012 election, with 56 percent backing Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Democrats have sought to require groups that fund political ads to reveal who is paying for them.
Van Hollen’s Suit
Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, sued and won a ruling in March by a federal judge in Washington that the FEC can’t allow groups that spend money on campaigns to keep their donors secret. That decision is being appealed.
House Democrats have filed a bid in that chamber to push their version of the Disclose Act to the floor.
Among the Republicans voting against the bill was Senator John McCain of Arizona, who said in a U.S. Supreme Court brief in May that “Americans believe that the current system of campaign finance is corrupt, and that Citizens United, thanks to the anonymous spending it unleashed, has made the problem worse.” McCain co-sponsored a 2002 campaign finance law that required groups to report their ad spending.
The legislation is S. 3369 and H.R. 4010.
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