September 22, 2022

Whitehouse Blasts Republican Blockade of the DISCLOSE Act

Senate Democrats vote to end dark money’s poisonous influence over American democracy

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) slammed Senate Republicans’ unified refusal today to advance the DISCLOSE Act, Whitehouse’s bill to shine a light on the big special interests spending unlimited sums to purchase influence over the American government.  The cloture vote failed 49-49.  The measure needed 60 votes to advance.  All Senate Republicans in attendance voted against the bill, while all members of the Democratic Caucus in attendance voted for it.

“Today, Senate Republicans stood in lockstep with their megadonors and secretive special interests to protect the most corrupting force in American politics—dark money,” said Whitehouse, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “The American people are fed up with dark money influence campaigns that rig their government against them and stymie their priorities.  The DISCLOSE Act would shine a light on special interest spending to neutralize its toxic effect, giving Americans’ voices a chance to be heard.  Republicans heeded the wishes of dark money donors today, but the fight to pass this bill isn’t over.”

In forceful remarks at the White House on Tuesday, President Joe Biden pressed Senate Republicans to support the DISCLOSE Act.

“Let’s remember: Getting dark money out of our politics has been a bipartisan issue in the past.  My deceased friend, John McCain, spent a lot of time fighting for campaign finance reform.  For him, it was a matter of fundamental fairness.  And he was 100 percent right about that,” said President Biden.  “Ultimately, this comes down to public trust.  Dark money erodes public trust.  We need to protect public trust.”

The DISCLOSE Act requires organizations spending money in elections – including super PACs and 501(c)(4) dark money groups – to promptly disclose donors who have given $10,000 or more during an election cycle.  In addition to election disclosure requirements, the bill requires groups that spend money on ads supporting or opposing judicial nominees to disclose their donors.

Special interest influence over elections is a major problem in America.  Citizens United and subsequent Supreme Court rulings permit super PACs and certain types of tax-exempt groups, such as 501(c)(4) nonprofits, 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. 

Since Citizens United, spending by corporations, ultra-rich ideologues, and secretive front groups has exploded.  Dark money in particular has skyrocketed despite the Supreme Court, by an 8 to 1 margin in Citizens United, upholding disclosure requirements as a means for citizens and shareholders to hold elected officials and corporate spenders accountable. 

The DISCLOSE Act contains a number of other important safeguards against special interest influence.  The bill includes measures to prevent foreign governments and their agents from interfering in U.S. elections, including in state and local ballot measures.  It includes provisions to crack down on the use of shell corporations to hide the identity of the donor by requiring companies spending money in elections to disclose their true owners.  And it contains a “stand by your ad” provision requiring organizations to identify those behind political ads – including disclosing an organization’s top five funders at the end of television ads.

In addition to election disclosure requirements, the DISCLOSE Act requires groups that spend money on ads supporting or opposing judicial nominees to disclose their donors.  These provisions are based on the Judicial Ads Act, which Senator Whitehouse sponsored with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to combat dark money influence over judicial nominations.  Due to the rise in dark money spending in judicial nominating fights, judges can oversee cases involving litigants who spent millions to get them on the bench, creating the potential for serious conflicts of interest that undermine public confidence in the judicial system.  The legislation would identify donors who fund advocacy campaigns aimed at confirming their favored nominees. 

The DISCLOSE Act will help Americans understand who is behind the massive uptick in dark money and other special interest spending in recent years.  Dark money political spending went from under $5 million in 2006 to more than $1 billion in 2020.  Billionaire political spending increased by a factor of 70, from $17 million for the 2008 election to $1.2 billion for 2020. 

Americans know something is deeply amiss in our democracy, and are fed up with special interests pulling the strings of government from behind the scenes.  Over 90% of voters view money in politics and wealthy political donors as the root of Washington’s dysfunction.  Through multiple cycles, even during COVID, voters list corruption in our political system among the most pressing issues that Congress should tackle.

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

The vote comes after a July hearing on the DISCLOSE Act in the Senate Rules Committee.  Leader Schumer first introduced the DISCLOSE Act in the wake of the disastrous Citizens United decision in 2010, and Whitehouse has introduced the legislation in every subsequent Congress. 

Rich Davidson, (202) 228-6291

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