June 27, 2018

Democrats Introduce the DISCLOSE Act of 2018

Whitehouse-Cicilline bicameral legislation would increase transparency and guard against foreign interference by requiring disclosure of dark money spending

Washington, DC – Today, as a growing share of Americans believe special interests have undue influence in government, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) led all Senate Democrats and 145 Democratic Members of the House of Representatives in introducing legislation to shine a light on the unlimited, secret spending flooding American elections.  Whitehouse and Cicilline’s updated DISCLOSE Act would require organizations spending money in federal elections to disclose their donors, and help guard against hidden foreign interference in our democracy.  The bill comes as outside spending organizations, like those funded by Charles and David Koch’s network of wealthy donors, gear up to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the 2018 midterm elections – and as experts warn of troubling avenues for foreign influence in elections using loopholes in U.S. campaign finance law.

The DISCLOSE Act is a key part of A Better Deal for Our Democracy—the Democratic plan to end the corruption in Washington that has paralyzed American politics and rigged the system against working people.  Democrats are committed to advancing critical reforms to empower voters at the ballot box, bolster our nation’s ethics laws, and overhaul our broken campaign finance system.  Whitehouse, a longtime champion of campaign finance reform, and Cicilline, who serves as co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC), played pivotal roles in crafting A Better Deal for Our Democracy before it was unveiled last month.

“The American people should control our democracy, not special interests.  Since the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, corporations and a small group of wealthy donors have smothered our democracy with sophisticated influence campaigns.  Attack ads from their dark money groups flash on our screens with no way to know who’s behind them.  And the same loopholes Citizens United opened for those special interests are available to the likes of Vladimir Putin or other foreign actors looking to undermine American democracy,” said Senator Whitehouse.  “We need to pass this bill, take back our country from the special interests, and restore Americans’ faith in government.”

“Our political system is rigged against working people and big corporations have too much power in Washington. Frankly, corporate special interests have bought and paid for the Republican politicians in Washington who are advancing policies that help them at the expense of everyone else. We can do better. It’s time to take back our country and put the people ahead of the powerful,” said Congressman Cicilline. “The DISCLOSE Act will bring a new level of transparency to our elections. It will ensure the American people know who is really fighting for them. It will restore public faith in our government. It will mark a major step towards fixing what’s broken in Washington.”

“Americans are sick and tired of special interests burying their voices under an avalanche of dark money that wields power over our political system,” said Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who authored the Stand By Your Ad provision in the bill. “The DISCLOSE Act will provide the transparency and accountability needed to restore people power to the democratic process and ensure all Americans know the real interests behind the messages that bombard them.”

Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress cheered introduction of the bill.

“Dark money has poisoned our democracy, leaving our elections vulnerable to foreign interference as well as giving special interests a louder voice than the American public in pivotal decisions—like healthcare and taxes.  As anonymous entities wreak havoc on our political system and hurt middle class families without any accountability whatsoever, campaign finance cannot continue to be shrouded in secrecy.  This common sense transparency legislation is a crucial step towards shielding democracy from the influence of corporations, special interests, and malicious foreign actors and putting the power back into the hands of Americans,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

“The American people are confronted with one of the most compromised, corrupt Administrations in history,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. “Instead of delivering on his promise to drain the swamp, the President Trump has become the swamp.  Meanwhile, Republicans in the White House and Congress are cravenly beholden to big money special interests, and the American people are paying the price.  It gives me pride to stand with Congressman Cicilline, Senator Whitehouse and Democrats to support the DISCLOSE ACT: bold legislation to fix our broken political system and put the power back in the hands of the people.  Democrats will continue to fight the Republican special interest agenda, and restore a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

DISCLOSE Act Background

Election spending has exploded in the United States since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.  Citizens United and subsequent Supreme Court rulings permit super PACs and certain types of tax-exempt groups to spend unlimited sums in elections.  Many of those groups are not required to disclose their donors, allowing wealthy corporations and individuals to spend unlimited, undisclosed – or “dark” – money without being tied to the television attack ads and other electioneering activity the groups carry out.

The result is unprecedented levels of dark money spending and a midterm election expected to be the most expensive ever.  Outside groups have already spent $154 million this cycle, and super PACs alone have raised $433 million.  The network of political spending organizations funded and controlled by the Kochs has announced it will spend over $400 million in the 2018 midterms.  House Speaker Paul Ryan’s political fundraising group recently received $24.6 million from a single anonymous donor.  In all, experts expect 2018 spending to exceed the $3.8 billion spent during the 2014 midterms.

The DISCLOSE Act of 2018 takes a number of steps to ensure disclosure of dark money spending.  Among those steps is a requirement for organizations spending money in elections – including super PACs and certain nonprofit groups – to disclose promptly donors who have given $10,000 or more during an election cycle.  The bill includes robust transfer provisions to prevent political operatives from using layers of shell corporations and front groups to hide donor identities.  Among new features of the bill is a “stand by your ad” provision requiring corporations, unions, and other organizations to identify those behind political ads – including disclosing an organization’s top five funders at the end of television ads. 

The bill protects against foreign spending in American elections.  Under current law, foreign nationals and foreign corporations are prohibited from engaging in any election spending.  However, domestic companies with significant foreign ownership are not subject to the same restrictions, and dark money channels are available to foreign interests.  The DISCLOSE Act would prohibit domestic corporations with significant foreign control, ownership, or direction from spending money in U.S. elections.

The bill also includes provisions to crack down on shell corporations by requiring companies spending money in elections to disclose their true owners, so election officials and the public know who is behind the spending.

A full summary of the bill is available here.  Bill text is available here.

Members of both parties long supported campaign finance disclosure prior to Citizens United.  In 2003, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told NPR spending in elections should be “limited and disclosed” so that “everyone knows who’s supporting everyone else.” 

Conservative judges have concurred.  “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2010.  “For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously . . . hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism.  This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.”

According to a bipartisan poll commissioned by the George W. Bush Institute, more than three in four Americans think that “the laws enacted by our national government these days mostly reflect what powerful special interests and their lobbyists want.”  The survey found that 55 percent of Americans see democracy as “weak” and 68 percent believe it is “getting weaker.

Whitehouse has introduced the DISCLOSE Act in every Congress since 2012. 


Press Contact

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921