Highly Partisan DISCLOSE Act Close to Vote

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

A highly partisan bill intended to counter a Supreme Court decision allowing corporate donations to political campaigns could be voted on as early as today. If passed, the bill would impose onerous reporting requirements on grass roots groups, including their Internet communication, just in time for the fall election, while giving unions a free pass.

The Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act (HR5175), sponsored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, may be ready for a full floor vote as early as Friday. The bill was designed to partially overturn a recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission which overturned laws curtailing corporate donations to campaign funds. Because corporations tend to favor Republican candidates, Democratic lawmakers believe it will allow more money to flow into their opponents coffers, which could make an already difficult election season even more challenging this fall.

As a result, they crafted a bill that many say tips the balance in the other direction, making it more difficult for their opponents to acquire funds by imposing a long list of onerous restrictions on the political activity of many corporate and grass roots organizations, such as pro-life groups and the tea party. 

Several former commissioners on the Federal Election Commission wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal calling the DISCLOSE Act “unnecessary, partially duplicative of existing law, and severely burdensome to the right to engage in political speech and advocacy.”

It also abandons the longstanding policy of treating unions and businesses equally, the commissioners say, which suggests partisan motives that undermine respect for campaign finance laws.

For instance, while the Supreme Court recently overturned limits on spending by both corporations and unions, the DISCLOSE Act seeks to reimpose them only on corporations.

“For example, while the Disclose Act prohibits any corporation with a federal contract of $50,000 or more from making independent expenditures or electioneering communications, no such prohibition applies to unions,” the write. “This $50,000 trigger is so low it would exclude thousands of corporations from engaging in constitutionally protected political speech, the very core of the First Amendment. Yet public employee unions negotiate directly with the government for benefits many times the value of contracts that would trigger the corporate ban.”

The Act also bans expenditures on political advocacy by American corporations with 20 percent or more foreign ownership, but there is no such ban on unions—such as the Service Employees International Union, or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—that have large numbers of foreign members and foreign nationals as directors, the commissioners point out.

Because labor unions typically support the Democratic party, it’s not hard to see the partisanship inherent in the bill.

Even more alarming is the fact that while the Disclose Act does include an exemption for major media corporations, it does not include websites or the Internet, which means the government can regulate (and potentially censor) political dialogue on the Web, the commissioners says.

“Additionally, the law would require any business or organization making political expenditures to create and maintain an extensive, highly sophisticated website with advanced search features to track its political activities,” the commissioners explain.

“As a result, small businesses, grass-roots organizations, and union locals that maintain only basic websites would be discouraged from making any expenditures for political advocacy, because doing so would require them to spend thousands of dollars to upgrade their websites and purchase software to report information that is already readily available to the public from the FEC. Large companies and unions could probably meet this requirement, so once again the bill benefits large, institutional players over small businesses and grass-roots organizations.”

“There is no principle embodied in this legislation other than crude political advantage,” said National Right to Life Committee Legislative Director Douglas Johnson to LifeSiteNews.com. “They are trying to temporarily disable their critics. By design it’s a crippling cluster-bomb of legal traps for groups that dare to speak about those in federal offices. What triggers these regulations? When you mention the name of a congressman; when you express an opinion about a congressman.”

Shari Rendall, Director of Legislation and Public Policy for Concerned Women for America, told LifeSite DISCLOSE “is simply designed to undermine the recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court ruling that said Congress may not prohibit funding of political speech by corporations, labor unions, and nonprofit groups – groups like CWA. The intent is to limit speech from any group that funds ads advocating an election or defeat of a candidate.”

With the Democrats facing dim prospects for re-election this fall, bills such as the DISCLOSE Act could be enough to help some candidates simply by allowing them access to more money than their opponent.

“The Disclose Act’s abandonment of the historical matching treatment of unions and corporations will cause a substantial portion of the public to doubt the law’s fairness and impartiality,” the commissioners concluded. “It makes election law even more complex, more incomprehensible to ordinary voters, and more open to subjective enforcement by those seeking partisan gain.”

If the bill passes the House and Senate and is signed into law by President Barack Obama, it would take effect in 30 days, just in time for the mid-term elections in November.

To express your concern, contact your elected representatives today!

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