WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats announced a new effort Tuesday to unmask secretive election spending, floating a bill that would require so-called dark money groups to disclose their campaign donors and expenditures.
Secretive spending became an issue in 2010, when the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision opened the door to unlimited electoral spending by corporations, unions and, ultimately, individuals. That sparked a dramatic surge in electoral activities paid for with dark money -- that is, funds from nonprofit groups not required to identify their donors.
In 2012, such nonprofit groups spent at least $400 million.
"Since the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, a torrent of dark money has swept through our political system, giving corporations and billionaires the ability to buy and sell elections, and allow them to beat real speech into submission," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a sponsor of the bill.
"The Disclose Act will require political groups to list publicly their big donors, so voters can at least know who is trying to sway their votes -- an important citizen right in a democracy, as the Supreme Court has recognized," Whitehouse said.
Democrats have made three prior attempts to pass legislation closing this disclosure loophole, but each time Republicans filibustered the measure. The GOP lawmakers argue that the legislation is simply an effort by Democrats to silence the opposition and that it would violate the First Amendment rights of nonprofit groups.
"The purpose of this legislation is clear: After Citizens United, Democrats realized they couldn't shut up their critics," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the floor of the Senate in 2012. "So they decided to go after the microphone instead, by trying to scare off the funders."
Democrats have responded with a list of Republicans, including McConnell, who used to support disclosure. Others include Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), all of whom said as recently as 2010 that they favored transparency in campaign funding.
"It wasn't too long ago that Republicans supported disclosure," Whitehouse said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested that the First Amendment argument was phony, noting that the right to free speech is not unlimited and arguing that restricting campaign spending is akin to other limits on speech, such as laws against libel or child pornography.
"If you believe in the First Amendment, you believe in disclosure, you believe in sunlight, you believe that letting people know, that giving people as close to what the economists would call perfect knowledge makes the system better," said Schumer.
Democrats also argued that allowing the wealthy to secretly spend as much as they want on elections gives them outsized influence with politicians and drowns out ordinary Americans' attempts to influence their representatives.
"The Supreme Court has determined that billionaires should have a louder voice in elections than everyone else. The Supreme Court is wrong," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). "But because it is the Supreme Court, the ultimate solution will lie in a constitutional amendment," she added, referring to a separate push for reform that Democrats also back.
She noted that while the Citizens United decision prevents Congress from restricting independent electoral spending, the Supreme Court also said that Congress can require donors to reveal themselves.
"Even this Supreme Court has said disclose, disclose, disclose in order to promote fairer elections," Warren said.
The latest bill would require any group that spends $10,000 or more during an election cycle to disclose campaign-related expenditures over $1,000 and donations and transfers of $10,000 or more. It would not limit spending.
"Those who are pouring money into elections at least have to be willing to stand up and admit that's what they are doing," Warren said.
Whitehouse said Democratic leaders have committed to bringing the measure up for a vote this year.
Later on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) committed not only to acting on the Disclose Act, but also to pushing a constitutional amendment on campaign finance.
"It's important that people understand what's happening to our country. The constant focus on who has the most money is just the wrong way to go," Reid told reporters.
This story has been updated with Sen. Harry Reid's remarks.