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July 14-17, 2012: Senate Republicans Successfully Block DISCLOSE Act Again

Senate Democrats try twice within a two-day period to bring the DISCLOSE Act, a campaign finance bill that would require the disclosure of the identities of political donors (see July 26-27, 2010), to the floor for a vote. If enacted, the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act would overturn many elements of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision that allows virtually unlimited and anonymous political spending by corporations and other entities (see January 21, 2010). If passed, it would create new campaign finance disclosure requirements and make public the names of “super PAC” contributors (see March 26, 2010). Individuals, corporations, labor unions, and tax-exempt charitable organizations would, under the act, report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) each time they spend $10,000 or more on campaign-related expenditures. The bill would also “prohibit foreign influence in federal elections [and] prohibit government contractors from making expenditures with respect to such elections.” Both Senate Democratic efforts are thwarted by a Republican filibuster. Democrats are unable to muster the 60 votes needed to grant “cloture,” which would break the filibuster and bring the bill to the floor to be voted up or down. The last vote supports cloture 53-45, not enough to invoke cloture; the first vote was 51-44 in favor. Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL), who is recovering from a seizure, and Richard Shelby (R-AL) do not vote. Democrats force an official recording of each senator’s vote, placing the names of senators voting for and against the bill in the public record. Democrats have tried since 2010 to pass the bill (see July 26-27, 2010). The bill, sponsored in its latest iteration by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), would force unions, nonprofits, and corporate interest groups that spend $10,000 or more during an election cycle to disclose donors who give $10,000 or more. Whitehouse modified the original version of the bill to no longer require sponsors of “electioneering” ads to put a disclaimer at the end, and pushed the effective date of the bill to 2013, meaning it would not impact the 2012 presidential campaign. Whitehouse and 15 other senators take to the floor to press for its passage. “When somebody is spending the kind of money that is being spent, a single donor making, for instance, a $4 million anonymous contribution, they’re not doing that out of the goodness of their heart,” he tells the Senate. Democrats urge Republicans who have previously spoken out in favor of transparency and campaign finance reform to vote for the bill, targeting Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Scott Brown (R-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), and Susan Collins (R-ME). However, none of them break ranks with their fellow Republicans. McCain, who co-authored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill of 2002 (see March 27, 2002) and has spoken out against the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and unions to anonymously spend unlimited amounts on “electioneering” activities (see January 21, 2010), refuses to join Democrats in supporting the bill. He tells the Senate before the final vote, “The American people will see it for what it is—political opportunism at its best, political demagoguery at its worst.” McCain asks Senate Democrats “to go back to the drawing board and bring back a bill that is truly fair, truly bipartisan, and requires true full disclosure for everyone.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says the bill would “send a signal to unions that Democrats are just as eager to do their legislative bidding as ever,” and that it “amounts to nothing more than member and donor harassment and intimidation.” In his weekly press conference shortly before the floor votes, McConnell says of the bill: “This could best be described as a selective disclosure act. It has managed to generate opposition from everybody from the ACLU to [the] NRA. That’s quite an accomplishment.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says of the bill: “[I]n a post-Citizens United world, the least we should do is require groups spending millions on political attack ads to disclose their largest donors. We owe it to voters to let them judge for themselves the attacks—and the motivations behind them.” And Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation says that the Senate is “thumbing their noses at the very notion of democratic elections.” [Politico, 7/14/2012; OMB Watch, 7/24/2012] After the bill fails to pass, Reid says, “It is obvious Republicans’ priority is to protect a handful of anonymous billionaires—billionaires willing to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to change the outcome of a close presidential contest.” [The Hill, 7/24/2012]

Entity Tags: Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Ellen Miller, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, John McCain, Mark Steven Kirk, Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander, US Senate, Scott Brown, Richard Shelby, Sheldon Whitehouse

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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