Despite pressure from a number of powerful corporate interests, the House passed the DISCLOSE Act yesterday in a vote of 219 to 206. The success in the House was a huge step towards ensuring transparency around the corporations, unions and shadow groups who choose to spend big money on election ads. Also important was a Sunlight amendment included in the bill that would ensure that any required disclosures are online, in real time, in a single searchable sortable database. We hope that amendment serves as a precedent for future legislation and that next time a bill requires public disclosure of government information, the drafters will not need to amend the legislation and instead will automatically include a provision providing for searchable, sortable, online public access to the data. After all, it’s not “public” if it’s not online.
The narrow victory in the House indicates just how controversial the DISCLOSE Act is. In our view, arguments that the bill will chill free speech are red herrings, designed obscure the real effort by some organizations to ensure that political spending remains hidden from public scrutiny. After all, many groups and individuals involved in the political process—from campaign contributors to lobbyists—must already disclose their activities and there is no shortage of speech on the airwaves or in the halls of Congress. The more money that finds its way into the political system, the more critical the disinfecting power of sunlight becomes in order to prevent corruption and ensure openness that leads to greater trust in government.
But there are those who will use their financial and political power to try to stop the forward progress of this bill, and while we believe a majority of Senators will support the bill—49 Senators have joined Sen. Schumer as cosponsors—getting to a filibuster-proof sixty votes in the Senate may be even more challenging than getting to a passing vote in the House. It seems that any Senator who voted in favor of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002—also known as the McCain/Feingold bill—should support this campaign finance disclosure bill. The Senate DISCLOSE Act does not yet have any Republican supporters, and we would hope to see former champions of campaign reform, including and perhaps especially Senator McCain, but also Senators Snowe, Collins, Cochran and Lugar, join the effort for greater transparency.