Big money groups try to dodge DISCLOSE

Written by Jack Mumby

A D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in May that required outside groups running “issue ads” to disclose their donors has been touted as a victory for campaign finance reform. By reclassifying their political spending as “independent expenditures”, however, influence-peddling groups like the Chamber of Commerce have shielded themselves from this new ruling.

The functional difference between “independent expenditures” and “issue ads” is minimal- the former must explicitly ask its audience to vote for or against a given candidate, while the latter may only highlight a candidate’s record on particular issues.

After the appeals court’s decision, however, there is one key difference- groups that run “issue ads” must now disclose their donors to the public, while groups that make “independent expenditures” may still keep them secret.

The reason big money groups fear disclosure should be obvious; transparency would make it easier for good government advocates to link politicians’ actions to the donors that fund them, while companies like Target have suffered serious economic and shareholder backlash for their political spending.

Predictably, rather than disclosing these motives, Chamber representatives express concern that transparency will open individual donors to “harassment.” President Tom Donohue recently accused accountability advocates of wanting to “intimidate people not to put their money into the electoral process.”

Harassment was, of course, a legitimate reason when the Supreme Court allowed the NAACP to conceal its donors in a 1958 ruling. However, the “people” Donohue speaks of here are the most influential and powerful corporations in the country. Any comparison between them and civil rights advocates under Jim Crow is laughable at best, as “harassment” targeted at powerful multinationals would surely be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, not tacitly supported by it.

The Chamber and groups like it are the ones who now have the law on their side- this episode demonstrates how easily they can find loopholes to evade accountability. In fact, big money groups like the Chamber tend to be perpetrators rather than victims of intimidation, as ordinary folks are discouraged from attempting to make their voices heard over the flood of corporate cash.

The DISCLOSE Act, which the Senate will debate and vote on this week, will force these big spenders to stop hiding behind secretive front groups and make themselves known. In 2010 the DISCLOSE Act was supported by a majority of Senators, but it failed to reach the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

The Senate is voting on DISCLOSE again this Tuesday, and contrary to their prior statements, Republican leaders have again come out against accountability, promising to filibuster the bill. If you want to make sure that our democracy stays of, by, and for the people, call your Senators to let them know you stand with Senator Whitehouse and DISCLOSE’s other sponsors in demanding full transparency.


Jack Mumby is a 2012 graduate of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Policy and campaigned for wage justice and other progressive causes. He is currently working as an intern with Common Cause’s national office.

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