WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats are setting up a showdown with Republicans on the issue of unlimited secret campaign donations, proposing new rules that would expose those donations to public view.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on Wednesday introduced a stripped-down version of the 2010 Disclose Act, without any of the more controversial elements that Republicans cited in torpedoing the bill last time.
The new bill, which has 34 co-sponsors (all Democrats), would simply require all groups spending more than $10,000 on election-related advertising to publicly name all donors who gave $10,000 or more. To address the lack of real-time disclosure of who is paying what, the bill would require any broadcast ad to list the sponsoring group's top five funders.
The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which blew away limits on political contributions to independent groups, actually endorsed full disclosure. But in its wake, political operatives have seized upon nonprofit 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) organizations as a way of letting donors remain anonymous, turning what are supposed to be "social welfare" or trade groups into secret political slush funds.
Republican leaders historically argued in favor of disclosure. But no more.
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for consumer group Public Citizen, contends that Republican elected officials have mostly come to see donor disclosure as a threat to their electoral prospects. "They know that most of the secret corporate money is going to support them," he said. "It's far more effective if they can keep that out of the public view."
In particular, Holman said, Republicans in this electoral cycle are expecting a massive flow of corporate funds to be spent on political advertising by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which keeps its donors secret.
Holman compared the groups that take secret money today to the slush funds that companies utilized to buy favorable policy in the Watergate era, and the robber baron era before that.
"The corporations and the individuals who contribute to these types of slush funds will let the candidates know," Holman said. "These corporations are not going to be anonymous to anybody except you and I, because if they're totally anonymous, they're not going to get anything in return."
The biggest question about the latest version of the Disclose Act is whether it is a sincere effort to pass the measure or just a political move.
Holman suspects some of the latter. "The Democrats are banking on this as being sort of a messaging bill," he said. "If the Republicans are going to reject this Disclose Act, they're going to have to make it very clear that the only reason they're opposed to it is they don't want voters to know where all this secret corporate money is coming from and who it's supporting."
Whitehouse, however, indicated he will work for Republican support.
"It's going to take public pressure as well as us working with our colleagues to get this done," the senator told reporters on Wednesday. "And I think on that point there is broad consensus. I think that if you are a Tea Party member on the right or an Occupy advocate on the left, you share a common view that billionaires and big corporations should not be able to meddle with unlimited funds anonymously, behind phony screens, in our elections."
Holman predicted there might be some Republican votes for the bill in the Senate, but almost certainly not enough to get it passed in the House.
The Whitehouse bill jettisons shareholder protection and lobbyist disclosure provisions but otherwise is nearly identical to the disclosure bill introduced in the House in January.
Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, is one of a legion of good-government activists who welcomed the introduction of the Senate bill on Wednesday.
"We are pleased to see the Senate is aligning with the House on supporting a DISCLOSE Act that goes straight to the problem: the lack of transparency for unlimited, secret super PAC money and the influence it has on our elections and our elected officials," Miller said in a statement. "This simplified bill is a good solution to the 'dark money' problem. The updated bill also removes extraneous or controversial provisions, instead focusing on what the public demands -- transparency."