RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One thing members of Congress are raising is money for next year's campaigns. When it comes to big money in politics, the issue these days is disclosure. One congressman is suing for more transparency so the public can know which wealthy donors and corporations are bankrolling attack ads.
NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: In a lawsuit and a separate petition Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen is challenging two rules written by the Federal Election Commission -rules that govern donor disclosure. The rules apply to the hot new sources of political finance - corporate contributions - spurred by last year's controversial Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United and contributions from wealthy individuals prompted by other court rulings on campaign finance law. Fred Wertheimer is one of Van Hollen's lawyers in the lawsuit.
Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (Lawyer): The only reason we had more than $135 million in secret contributions in 2010 congressional races was because the FEC had adopted improper contribution disclosure regulations.
OVERBY: The secret contributions were raised by outside money groups which mostly used the funds to put attack ads on TV. According to the lawsuit Congress wants the money behind such ads to be disclosed and said so explicitly in the McCain-Feingold law enacted in 2002. The lawsuit goes on to argue that the FEC gutted those disclosure provisions when it wrote the regulations to carry them out.
The FEC regs require disclosure in just two circumstances both easily avoidable. First, if the donor earmarks the money for a particular ad buy and second if the advertising group puts the money into a special advertising account. Defenders of the FEC say it was simply using common sense in interpreting McCain-Feingold. Sean Parnell is with the Center for Competitive Politics. He was on a cell phone yesterday taking a dim view of mandatory disclosure.
Mr. SEAN PARNELL (President, Center for Competitive Politics): The FEC, for I think some pretty good reasons, have decided that the type of extensive and intrusive and burdensome disclosure regime simply is not practical.
OVERBY: The lawsuit intensifies a growing battle over secret money and disclosure. Republican senators blocked a disclosure bill in 2010 and in the midterm elections last year conservative groups dominated the outside money game. Democrats including President Obama attacked the anonymous contributions. But now liberals are launching their own groups - some committed to transparency, some working behind a veil. Chris Harris is with one of the new disclosing groups, called American Bridge.
Mr. CHRIS HARRIS (Spokesman, American Bridge): While this may not be the system that we all want, I think these are the rules of the game now, and we need to fight to win.
OVERBY: At Crossroads GPS, a conservative group that does not disclose Jonathan Collegio says the controversy over transparency may be diminishing.
Mr. JONATHAN COLLEGIO (Communications Director, Crossroads GPS): Now that we see that the center-left groups are doing the same as the center-right, it does provide a better degree of certainty to the donors who want to give to these groups.
OVERBY: But that may be wishful thinking. The disclosure issue is alive on several fronts. The White House is weighing whether to make all federal contractors disclose their campaign giving, along with that of their executives, affiliates, and subsidiaries.
Shareholder advocacy groups are pressing corporations to reveal their political spending. A media watchdog group is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to force disclosure of the donors behind TV ads regardless of what the Federal Election Commission does.
And Wertheimer says his legal team is laying the groundwork for a filing at the Internal Revenue Service, which also regulates these groups.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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