WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans blocked a bill Monday evening to increase transparency in campaign spending by independent groups.
In a 51-44 vote, the DISCLOSE Act failed to obtain the 60 votes needed to clear a Republican filibuster. The bill would have required disclosure of anyone who donates to independent groups that spent more than $10,000 on campaign ads -- or their functional equivalent -- and other election spending.
The bill was not expected to beat back the Republican filibuster, which was led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell, called the "Darth Vader of campaign finance reform" in the past, recently made news by giving a series of speeches declaring that campaign finance disclosure amounted to nothing short of harassment and a suppression of speech. In one op-ed for USA Today McConnell called the DISCLOSE Act "un-American" and "an attempt to identify and punish political enemies, or at the very least, intimidate others from participating in the process."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) was the primary sponsor of the legislation and will lead a series of floor speeches from Senate Democrats into the early hours of Tuesday to protest the Republicans' filibuster.
The Republican filibuster came after decades of statements by various Republicans that, while they opposed restrictions on campaign finance, they vehemently supported full disclosure.
"We need to have real disclosure," McConnell said as recently as 2010 in a debate over the first iteration of the DISCLOSE Act. The 2010 version of the bill, which included provisions that went beyond simple disclosure, also was blocked by a Republican filibuster in a 59-41 vote.
Republicans once considered staunch supporters of campaign finance disclosure, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) one of the two primary co-authors of the 2002 campaign finance reform bill, voted to block it. Other opponents Monday who in the past supported campaign finance disclosure or bemoaned the influence of groups that don't disclose, included Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), and Scott Brown (R-Mass.).
Campaign finance reform groups voiced deep displeasure with Senate Republicans for contradicting previous statements of support for transparency in elections.
"Tonight Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell convinced Senators on his side of the aisle to put party loyalty over principle, demonstrating an astonishing level of hypocrisy," the Campaign Legal Center's Meredith McGehee said in a statement. "This is the kind of election-year partisanship that makes more and more Americans fed up with Washington."
Independent spending in federal elections exploded after the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC). That decision freed corporations and unions to spend freely on elections and a subsequent lower court ruling used the Citizens United decision to free individuals to contribute unlimited amounts in groups now known as super PACs.
In 2010, reported spending by independent groups shot up by more than 400 percent from the previous midterm election. Already in 2012, reported independent spending is more than double where it was at the same point in 2008 and will only increase. Much of this spending, however, is coming from groups that already disclose their donors to the FEC.
The transparency provisions of the DISCLOSE Act would have covered contributions to nonprofits and unions (despite the fact that they already disclose their donors to the Department of Labor). Many of these groups, particularly groups organized as social welfare nonprofits under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, are the biggest spenders in the 2012 election.
One group, which is not reporting expenditures to the FEC or disclosing its donors, is the Karl Rove-linked social welfare nonprofit Crossroads GPS. According to its press releases, Crossroads GPS has spent $85.9 million on advertising campaigns since the beginning of 2011 without disclosing its donors or the spending itself.