Ever since the Supreme Court turned corporations fully into people with the Citizens United ruling, Congress have been mulling a legislative response. The first of those responses is out today. It’s called the DISCLOSE Act. Versions of it are in both houses of Congress (the House version is here, the Senate version is here). It’s bipartisan, at least in the House. (Will Senate Republicans get on board? The Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate are working on it, we’ll soon see if the GOP wants to stand up to corporations or not.) And it’s pretty interesting.

In general, the bill skirts the Constitutional issues by barring various forms of political spending from various classes of corporations as opposed to corporations as a whole. For example:

  • Government contractors will be barred from both contributing to candidates and spending on "independent expenditure" campaigns that are not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign. Bailout recipients are also banned until they have repaid their debts.
  • Foreign-controlled companies are already banned from election expenditures, but the bill would extend the ban to corporations where foreign nationals own 20% or more in voting shares, corporations who’s board of directors is majority foreign, and corporations who’s decision making power is vested in foreigners.

The bill also extends the ban on coordination of outside spending with campaigns from 90 days before an election (120 in a Presidential) to 90 days before the first primary in an election (120 before the first Presidential primary).

The bill also would require extensive transparency and disclosure for all of these independent expenditure campaigns:

  • All significant expenditures would have to be disclosed to the FEC. The House version mandates this disclosure be within 24 hours. This is actually a pretty big change in the law, and potentially a very big deal. If the FEC made such data public in real time, it would be possible to see corporate spending fluctuate almost instantly, giving campaigns a heads-up and reporters and other sleuths a real-time picture of money in elections, something that is sorely lacking today. But the FEC needs to make that data available online in real time, a caveat the Sunlight Foundation highlights.
  • All c4s, unions, 527s, trade groups, and corporations would have to disclose donations greater than $1,000 if they run significant amounts of independent expenditure ads. This would apply to organizations that transfer funds to others for these ends as well. Overall, this would break through the current secrecy surrounding these groups. For example, it was widely suspected but never proven until very late in the process that the health insurance industry was funding anti-health reform ads. Now, their contributions to the Chamber of Commerce for these ads would be public.
  • All independently run ads would require the CEO or head of the organization to appear in the ad and "approve" the message, much like political candidates must appear and approve ads today. The "top funder" of the ad must appear as well, to prevent corporations from funneling money through no-name groups to cover their tracks.
  • All registered lobbyists would  have to disclose how much they spent on political ads.
  • Corporations and member organizations that spend money on political ads would have to disclose what was spent to their shareholders or members

In addition, the Senate version of the bill would give candidates the lowest possible market rate for air time to respond to independent attacks. The Senate version would also require Senate candidates to file their campaign finance reports electronically with the FEC, something long sought by transparency groups.

Taken together, the bill contains a lot of very substantive and important changes. In particular, the near-real-time reporting in the House version has the potential to make the connection between corporate money and pro-corporate legislation much more clear.

Feingold, Leahy, and Schumer, the three co-sponsors in the Senate, are taking it to the grassroots, asking people to sign on and support the bill.

I’ve signed on. The bill is worth supporting. And there will be opportunities to strengthen and weaken in as the bill moves through committee and onto the floor. However, this bill is only a step in the right direction.

While transparency and disclosure are good, important things, they don’t fundamentally change the nature of money and politics, especially big advertising campaigns and their effect on the electorate. Even with disclosure, a slick, big ad buy from a corporation may still be able to swing public opinion and electoral outcomes, leaving elected officials beholden to their interests. Campaign finance reform is still needed, and likely so is a Constitutional amendment or a ruling from the Supreme Court overturning this type of corporate personhood.

Without that, we’re still not back to the ideal of one man (or woman), one vote.

Jason Rosenbaum

Jason Rosenbaum

Writer, musician, activist. Currently consulting for Bill Halter for U.S. Senate and a fellow at the New Organizing Institute.