House Backs Campaign Disclosure Bill

The House of Representatives has an answer for the Supreme Court: a bill to shine some light on who's paying for political campaign ads from corporations and independent groups. The measure aims to lessen the impact of a Supreme Court ruling that said corporations have the same free-speech rights as individuals — and can therefore spend corporate funds on campaigns.

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For decades, corporations were restricted from participating directly in U.S. elections. That is until January, when the Supreme Court ruled that law unconstitutional, along with a whole swath of campaign finance rules.

The case is known by its plaintiff, the conservative group Citizens United. And today, Democratic leaders made their first attempt to establish guidelines in a post-Citizens United world. The House passed a bill called the Disclose Act.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: If corporations can now dump truckloads of money into politics, say Democrats, then they should at least have to do it out in the open. Thats the idea behind this bill called The Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act, or the Disclose Act.

Here's what it does. If a corporation, union or a non-profit uses money from its general funds to influence politics, it must publicly disclose all of its donors who give more than $600 in a year, it must periodically notify its donors or shareholders of the political activity, and it must take responsibility for its political advertisements within the ad, you know: I'm Joe CEO, and I approve this ad.

That's the most important part, said Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett on the House floor today.

Representative LLOYD DOGGETT (Democrat, Texas): Without the Disclose Act, a tobacco company can come here masquerading as a phony health care coalition. A Wall Street bank can come and ask for another bailout, claiming that it's part of a consumer alliance. And a polluter can defeat those who want to hold it accountable by asserting that it's part of Citizens for Clean Air and Clean Beaches.

SEABROOK: Democrats, government watchdog groups and the Obama administration are worried that political front groups, those ambiguously named organizations like Americans for America, that they will explode in number and ad space. So, force companies to take responsibility for the ads they fund, says the proposed law.

But the bill also exempts some groups, those that are longstanding, get less than 15 percent of their income from corporations and have more than 500,000 donors or dues-paying members. The rationale is that groups like this, say The Sierra Club, are not conduits for hidden spending by corporations anyway.

But the exemption wasn't written for The Sierra Club. It was written for the National Rifle Association. Democrats knew they couldn't pass this bill if the NRA opposed it. So they secured an agreement: Exempt the NRA, and it wouldn't oppose or support the bill.

But somewhat ironically, that led to the Republicans' main line of attack against the Disclose Act, that it slashes into the First Amendment freedom of speech, creating two separate classes of political speech.

California Republican Dan Lungren spoke directly to the American people.

Representative DAN LUNGREN (Republican, California): This is your First Amendment. It's not my First Amendment. It's not the Democratic leadership's First Amendment. And yet, they are auctioning off parts of this First Amendment by this bill. Why do I say that? Some people are more equal than others.

SEABROOK: Lungren brought to the floor a list of dozens and dozens of political groups that oppose this legislation, some of which traditionally support Democrats, to which Maryland's Chris Van Hollen responded:

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): It's no surprise that you have lots of organizations on the right and the left, love what they stand for or hate what they stand for, that are opposing this bill because they don't want voters to know who is funding their ads.

SEABROOK: Those who support the Disclose Act are in something of a hurry. They're trying to pass this before the inevitable flood of ads to come before November's congressional elections. But it still has to go through the Senate before it has a chance of becoming law.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, The Capitol.

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