WASHINGTON -- Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) unveiled on Tuesday the first bipartisan campaign disclosure bill in the Senate since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the door to unlimited electoral spending by groups that were not covered by any prior campaign disclosure regime.
The bill, known as the Follow the Money Act, would require any and all groups spending at least $10,000 on electoral activity to register and disclose contributions above $1,000. The bill would also raise the threshold for contributor disclosure from $200 to $1,000 for all political committees, including those of candidates and political parties.
In the 2012 election cycle, at least $400 million was spent by "dark money" groups not required to disclose their donors, especially tax-exempt organizations such as trade associations and social welfare nonprofits.
In a press conference to announce the Follow the Money Act, Wyden said that the bill would end "the flagrant abuses of federal tax laws by political operatives masquerading as tax exempt social welfare organizations."
"The legislation is built on the same principles that make our financial markets work," he said. "Markets move on information and transparency, and everybody's got to play by the same rules."
Previous efforts to pass legislation to address Citizens United and related court decisions have faltered in the face of united Republican opposition. In 2010, the proposed Disclose Act failed to clear a Republican filibuster by one vote, and in 2012, Republicans twice came together to filibuster a streamlined version of that bill.
Murkowski, who has long been seen as a potential supporter for the Disclose Act, said about the Follow the Money Act, "This is a bill that is designed to be bipartisan. This is a bill that is designed to be even across the board."
Republicans and some business and conservative groups had argued that the Disclose Act would have exempted unions while requiring corporations to disclose their campaign spending. The first iteration of the House bill did include, by amendment, a partial exemption that would have applied to some union contributions. However, this provision was removed from the Senate bill. The second version, twice filibustered, did not include an exemption for any union spending.
In explaining her decision to work with Wyden to craft the Follow the Money Act, Murkowski alluded to her own 2010 campaign. Independent conservative groups poured in money to defeat her in the Republican primary, and she ultimately had to win reelection as a write-in candidate.
"We've all had to go through an election," Murkowski said. "Some of us have been the beneficiary of some of this independent expenditure activity. Some of us have been on the receiving end of some pretty directed campaigns."
Conservatives and campaign finance regulation opponents have already come out against the Follow the Money Act.
"When liberals talk about 'transparency', that isn't what they mean," Cleta Mitchell, chairwoman of the American Conservative Union Foundation, said in a statement. "What they really want and what this bill provides is a target list of conservatives who have the temerity to contribute their after tax dollars to support candidates and issues the left hates."
"The bill would not be bipartisan in any serious sense of the term," Brad Smith, president of the Center for Competitive Politics and a former Federal Election Commission (FEC) chairman, said in a statement. "Like far too many proposals and laws to regulate political speech, it would be a partisan bill aimed at discouraging voices that one side sees as hostile to their interests, and that Senator Murkowski is angry at for opposing her in her defeat in a Republican primary."
In addition to expanding disclosure of independent group spending and reducing the contribution disclosure threshold, the Follow the Money Act would create a system of real-time disclosure, require independent groups to abide by "Stand By Your Ad" provisions (including the identification of their top three donors), require senators to file campaign reports electronically, require tax-exempt 527 groups to file disclosure reports with the FEC (instead of the Internal Revenue Service), and direct the FEC and IRS to work together to craft and enforce regulations.
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