Sen. John McCain appears back in the game on campaign finance reform, reportedly chatting with Democrats about joining forces to require outside groups, who accept unlimited sums of money from corporations and labor unions, to disclose the names of their donors. That will surely further increase the activity of lobbyists who already have been keeping close tabs on legislation circulating in both chambers amidst the growth of SuperPACs after the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.
The Hill reported this morning that the Arizona Republican senator indicated he was talking with several Democrats, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the author of the latest bill aimed at stemming what McCain said could become a “major scandal” as a result of the massive wave of corporate and union money being spent on behalf of congressional and presidential candidates — an issue McCain thought he had tamped down with his landmark 2002 law banning soft money.
So far it is unclear what new agreement might be pending. Both Whitehouse’s bill introduced in March by a coalition of Democratic senators, and a House measure introduced by Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland in February would require the disclosure of donors responsible for campaign-related expenditures. Whitehouse’s bill would require any group that spends $10,000 or more on election ads or other political activities to file a disclosure form with the FEC within 24 hours. Groups also would have to file reports for each additional $10,000 spent, and disclose donors who gave $10,000 or more. Both measures include a provision requiring the heads of the groups to include an “I approve this message” disclaimer in campaign ads.
McCain said he wants to be sure final legislation focuses as much on labor unions as on corporations. Many business trade groups contend that corporations are being unfairly targeted by Democrats.
McCain had made campaign finance reform the foundation of his 2000 presidential bid. He helped enact legislation in 2000 to require tax-exempt Section 527 groups to disclose information about their organization and finances — having become the target of one such group. And, with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, steered through Congress the landmark Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 to ban soft money and place restrictions on issue ads.
But the Supreme Court in 2010 struck down the law’s prohibition on corporations, unions and other organizations from using their general treasury funds for independent expenditures, thereby permitting them to spend unlimited sums on advertising expressly supporting or opposing specific candidates. As many suspected, those organizations have preferred to funnel their money through outlets not required to make detailed disclosures to FEC. A subsequent federal district appeals court decision in SpeechNow.org v. FEC made that possibility even more attractive by permitting unlimited contributions to PACs that make only independent expenditures. That set the stage for the growth of “super PACs” that raise and spend unlimited sums for campaign advertising.
The latest FEC filings show that more than 430 SuperPACs, or “independent-expenditure only committees” have registered. And the Center for Responsive Politics reports that, so far this election cycle, SuperPACs have spent more than $105.5 million on presidential and congressional campaign advertising.
Meanwhile, dozens of lobbyists already are keeping watch on the measures offered by White House and Van Hollen, working on behalf of:
- National Cable and Telecommunications Association
- National Education Association
- CBS Corporations
- American Civil Liberties Union
- Public Citizen
- Construction Industry Round Table
- Common Cause
- Wiley Rein LLP on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters
- People for the American Way
- Bernstein Strategy Group on behalf of the Sunlight Foundation
- Democracy 21
- Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law
While many watchdog groups are hoping for rules to force the disclosure of corporate donations that are heavily financing campaign advertising, lobbyists on the other side of the issue are fighting back. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called Whitehouse’s bill after it was released a “politically motivated” attack on free speech, contending lawmakers are trying to stifle the speech of the business community “under the guise of ‘disclosure.’”
Meanwhile, major broadcasters also don’t want to stem the tide of money, and television stations are fighting an FCC rule requiring them to make political advertising data more accessible online — which they contend would cost them money.
While it’s just one of many issues these lobbyists are working on for these firms, those firms are doling out in some cases millions of dollars for work on their behalf.
In the Courts
Van Hollen also has taken on the issue of campaign finance by filing a lawsuit against the FEC, battling a regulation that allows groups that fund electioneering ads — those ads that expressly advocate for or against a candidate running for office — from disclosing the identity of their donors. Yesterday, a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals panel denied a request to stay a ruling by a lower court that would require such organizations to disclose most of their donors.
An appeal is expected to be considered later this year, but in the meantime many organizations are concerned about now having to reveal their donors. Chamber of Commerce spokesman Blair Latoff said he the organization was concerned the court was “changing the rules of the road in the middle of an election cycle.”
It’s doubtful, with the election right around the corner and lawmakers’ attention focused heavily on budgetary and tax issues, that any action would happen immediately on the issue on Capitol Hill. But activity will heat up further following the full FEC campaign expenditure reports after this year’s election season — no matter which party ends up on top after the election.