07.19.17

DPCC Holds Hearing on Protecting American Elections From Foreign Interference by Strengthening Campaign Finance Laws

Whitehouse unveils revamped DISCLOSE Act to address threats to America’s campaign finance system

Washington, DC – With more details of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election emerging daily, the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC) held a hearing on Wednesday to examine the exposure of our democracy to foreign interference through lax campaign finance laws.  DPCC Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow hosted the hearing, while Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) led the discussion with a slate of leading campaign finance experts.  The hearing covered loopholes in existing law that allow foreign money to enter our elections and the threat that money poses to our national security and the integrity of our democracy.

Citizens United and related Supreme Court decisions have unleashed a flood of special interest money into our elections, helping to poison our politics and rig the system in favor of the wealthy and powerful.  But this has also opened up troubling new avenues for foreign adversaries set on gaining advantage over the United States.  In particular, shell corporations and tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organizations make it possible for anonymous donors—whether they be the Koch brothers, unknown foreign billionaires, foreign corporations, or even enemy governments—to buy influence and threaten crushing spending against political foes.

“Quite simply, Vladimir Putin can use the same tactics as Charles Koch,” Whitehouse said.  “The threat is real, and if we do not take action to keep foreign money out of elections, the problem will only get worse.”

At the hearing, Whitehouse unveiled a new version of the DISCLOSE Act, his legislation to require organizations spending money in elections to disclose their donors.  The new bill would also crack down on shell companies by requiring companies spending money in elections to disclose the true owner of the company, so election officials and the public know who is behind the company.  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.  The DISCLOSE Act of 2017 would prohibit domestic corporations with significant foreign control, ownership, or direction from spending money in U.S. elections.

“We know the Koch brothers can exploit the dark money channels of our campaign finance system, but Vladimir Putin can too,” said Whitehouse. “Citizens United unleashed a torrent of special interest money into our elections.  We’ve seen the staggering numbers in its wake.  That unlimited special interest money has exploited dark money channels, which also provide a fast lane for foreign adversaries to meddle in our elections and buy influence in our democracy.  That’s why we’ve updated the DISCLOSE Act, to close dark money and shell corporation loopholes and head off foreign election interference.”

Joining Whitehouse to introduce the DISCLOSE Act were Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Thomas Carper (D-DE), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Jon Tester (D-Mt), Tom Udall (D-NM), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), Al Franken (D-MN), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Angus King Jr. (I-ME), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Edward Markey (D-MA), Corey Booker (D-NJ), Gary Peters (D-MI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV).

A summary of the new DISCLOSE Act is available here.

At the hearing, Whitehouse and Stabenow were among 16 Senators who questioned current and former federal election officials, researchers, election law scholars, and think tank leaders about these threats.  Witnesses included:

Ellen Weintraub, Commissioner, Federal Election Commission

Ellen Weintraub has been a member of the FEC since 2002.  She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate and has twice served as FEC chair since her appointment by President Bush.  Prior to her appointment, Commissioner Weintraub was Of Counsel to Perkins Coie as a member of its Political Law Group.  Before that, she was Counsel to the House Ethics Committee.  In 2016, Commissioner Weintraub hosted an FEC forum on Corporate Political Spending and Foreign Influence with numerous legal, campaign finance, and tax experts, to discuss potential rule changes the FEC could make to better identify and prevent foreign political spending.

Weintraub’s prepared testimony is available here.

Norm Ornstein, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

Norm Ornstein has been an astute observer of Congress and American politics since he first arrived in Washington in 1969.  He currently serves as a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic, is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and was co-director of an Election Reform Project co-organized with the Brookings Institution.  Mr. Ornstein also led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the McCain-Feingold Act that reformed our campaign financing system.  In 2004, he was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Ornstein’s prepared testimony is available here.

Larry Noble, Senior Director & General Counsel, Campaign Legal Center

Larry Noble is the Senior Director of Ethics and General Counsel of the Campaign Legal Center.  He is also a Contributor on CNN.  He was previously President of Americans for Campaign Reform, practiced political law at Skadden, was Executive Director and General Counsel of the Center for Responsive Politics, and served as the General Counsel of the Federal Election Commission for 13 years. He has also taught Campaign Finance Law at George Washington University for more than 15 years.

Noble’s prepared testimony is available here. 

Sheila Krumholz, Executive Director, Center for Responsive Politics

Sheila Krumholz is the Executive Director of the Center for Responsive Politics, one of the premier nonpartisan research groups tracking money in U.S. politics.  In 2010, Fast Company magazine listed her among the “Most Influential Women in Technology.”  Ms. Krumholz became executive director in 2006, after eight years as the Center's research director, supervising data analysis for OpenSecrets.org.  Under her leadership, the Center has assembled its hundreds of millions of records into an accessible online database, making them freely available for public scrutiny.

Krumholz’s prepared testimony is available here.

Liz Kennedy, Director, Government & Democratic Reform, Center for American Progress

Liz Kennedy is the Director of Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress.  Previously, she served as a counsel and campaign strategist at Demos, and was an attorney in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, working on issues of money in politics and democratic accountability.  She has authored or co-authored numerous papers on these topics, including “Citizens Actually United: The Bi-Partisan Opposition to Corporate Political Spending and Support for Common Sense Reform.”  Earlier in her career, Ms. Kennedy represented unions in industrial bankruptcy cases and was a litigation associate at Cravath, and worked as a student organizer and canvass director at the Public Interest Research Group.

Kennedy’s prepared testimony is available here.

Photos are available upon request.

***VIDEO AVAILABLE HERE***

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