April 11, 2019

Whitehouse Introduces DISCLOSE Act to Restore Americans’ Trust in Democracy

DISCLOSE Act would increase transparency and guard against foreign interference

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) today introduced the DISCLOSE Act of 2019, which would require organizations spending money in federal elections to disclose their donors and help guard against hidden foreign interference in American democracy. 

“Americans recognize that their voices are being stymied by big special interests in Congress,” said Whitehouse, who has introduced the DISCLOSE Act in every Congress since 2012.  “On issues from climate change to gun safety, a torrent of dark money spending has for too long prevented Congress from pursuing solutions that are overwhelmingly supported by the public.  We need to pass this legislation to put power back where it belongs—in the hands of the American people—and restore trust in democracy.”

The DISCLOSE Act requires organizations spending money in elections – including super PACs and certain nonprofit groups – to promptly disclose 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 front groups to hide donor identities.  The bill 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, so election officials and the public know who is behind the spending.  The DISCLOSE Act also contains 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.  Forty-five Senate Democrats are cosponsoring the legislation.

“The power of dark, untraceable money in American politics is a stain on our nation’s history and impedes the will of voters,” U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) said.  “Americans deserve to know just who’s behind the political messages bombarding them nearly every minute during election season.  Radical transparency is the only path forward for free and fair elections, and this bill provides a road map to get there.”

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.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2018 election was the most expensive midterm by a large margin, with total spending surpassing $5.7 billion.  The 2020 presidential contest is expected to be the costliest ever. 

Unlimited special interest spending in elections has eroded Americans’ faith in government.  In a recent survey by The Democracy Project, participants listed money in politics as their top concern about our democracy.  Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they agree that “the laws enacted by our national government these days mostly reflect what powerful special interests and their lobbyists want.”

A version of the legislation was also included in the For the People Act, a sweeping package of pro-democracy reforms introduced last month in the Senate, to put power back in the hands of the American people.  The For the People Act would overhaul America’s broken campaign finance system, make it easier to vote, and strengthen ethics laws.  The package serves as Senate companion legislation to H.R. 1 in the U.S. House of Representatives, which passed the House earlier this month. 

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.” 


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