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Sheldon Whitehouse, Disclose Act Sponsor: 'We Can't Give Up'

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Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is a chief sponsor of legislation to increase transparency in electoral spending.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is a chief sponsor of legislation to increase transparency in electoral spending.

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who recently led a two-day vigil on the Senate floor to press unsuccessfully for a bill that would require secret-money groups spending on elections to disclose their donors, told grassroots supporters Tuesday that campaign finance reformers need to adopt a "Jericho principle" until the issue is resolved.

For two days in the middle of July, Whitehouse led Democrats in holding the Senate floor to try to open debate on the Disclose Act, a bill that would force groups spending more than $10,000 on elections to name their contributors. The bill was blocked -- twice -- by a Republican filibuster.

"We can't give up in the Senate," Whitehouse said on a conference call organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee on Tuesday. "I talked to my colleagues about what I call the Jericho principle, which is just because you didn't win the first time around doesn't mean you aren't going to win down the road."

The term "Jericho principle" is a reference to the biblical story of the Battle of Jericho in which Joshua was told by God to march around the city of Jericho once a day for six days and then on the seventh day to march around the wall seven times, after which the walls of the city came down.

Whitehouse's modern-day walls of Jericho include a House Republican majority that supports policies allowing political donors to remain hidden and the frequent use of the Senate filibuster to deny a simple majority victory on legislation.

"I think the filibuster is a roadblock," Whitehouse said, adding, "The Republican majority in the House is a roadblock. ... We can defeat this with Jericho principles."

The dual filibusters that blocked consideration of the Disclose Act in July were joined by some supporters of campaign finance disclosure, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Whitehouse and McCain joined together in May to petition the Supreme Court to revisit its 2010 Citizens United decision in the case of a Montana law. (The court did not heed their urging.)

When asked whether he had discussed with McCain the latter's vote to filibuster the Disclose Act, Whitehouse responded, "We have had this conversation. I'm not telling tales outside of school. ... He believes that there is a provision in the bill that actually provides a special protection for labor unions, and I told him there was no such thing. ... There simply is no such thing that gives labor unions an advantage. Everyone is treated exactly the same."

Whitehouse suggested that McCain's argument could have come from staff members who are still looking at previous iterations of the disclosure bill, which had been introduced in earlier sessions of Congress. He also praised McCain.

"He really did step up to join the brief [in support of Montana]," Whitehouse said. "It was a very strongly worded brief, and he showed a lot of courage doing that."

As for the Disclose Act debate, Whitehouse said of McCain and the other filibustering Republicans, "When everyone was actually ducking and covering under [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell, [McCain] actually came to the floor" to explain his vote.

Supporters who had dialed into the call were told that the fight to pass the Disclose Act will continue. "Americans really get it. More than 720,000 people signed on as citizen co-sponsors of the legislation. That was really impressive. ... Without the public support, this would not have been as impressive as it was," the senator said.

Responding to a question about constitutional amendments on campaign finance, Whitehouse touted the multiple proposals in the Senate, including those from Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

He also suggested that the Securities and Exchange Commission should require publicly traded companies to disclose to their shareholders any political contributions from the corporate treasury. "It's one thing to say the public doesn't have a right to know, but it's another thing for the SEC to say that shareholders don't have a right to know," Whitehouse said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee as the Progressive Campaign Change Committee.

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