The immediate reform fight is not about stopping the flow of money, but rather securing mere disclosure

-By Justin Elliott

January 28, 2012- It’s not even the general election season, and we’re already seeing the electoral process dominated by super PACs, funded with unlimited donations and protected by a paper-thin veil of “independence.”

The super PACs operating in the GOP primary have managed to delay disclosing their donors until next month, but the identities of who funded these groups will be public. Groups in a different category — those that don’t ever disclose donors — haven’t started operating in any prominent way, but you can be sure they will in the fall.

I’ve recently explored how we got to this point. But what about the prospects for reform of a system that so many are disillusioned with?

To learn about what’s going on, I spoke to Fred Wertheimer, the founder and president of Democracy 21, who has been working on campaign finance issues for more than three decades.

Huffington Post is reporting that a campaign finance bill is in the works in Congress – something similar to the DISCLOSE Act of 2010 — and that you worked on the bill. What can we expect from this effort by the Democrats?

It is designed to solve a series of problems. First of all, we had more than $135 million in secret contributions injected into the 2010 congressional races through tax-exempt groups that don’t disclose their donors. These are the 501(c)(4) advocacy groups and the 501(c)(6) business associations. This legislation, like the DISCLOSE Act, will ensure that donors giving money to groups that are spending it to influence elections are disclosed.

Second, we’ve had a serious problem with disclosure of super PACs in this election. From July 1 of last year to date, we’ve had no disclosure of the donors financing the super PACs and will not get any information until early February. That means we’ve had a number of very important primary and caucus contests with voters having no idea who is putting up millions of dollars that are spent to influence their votes. All of those disclosures will come in early February, after critical contests are already over. The legislation will fix the problems that have been created by untimely disclosure by super PACs in the 2012 presidential primary elections.

Third, it will require candidate-specific super PACs to have an official take responsibility for their ads and require the ads to list the top donors to the super PAC.

With the DISCLOSE Act in 2010, it passed the House and fell one vote short of overcoming a filibuster in the Senate. What are the prospects for this new bill once it gets introduced?

The legislation this time will only have disclosure provisions and will not include a number of the nondisclosure provisions that were in the bill in the last Congress and that drew various arguments by opponents who were in fact opposed to disclosure. So this is a powerful bill that is very hard to oppose on any kind of merit argument. It is focused only on disclosure, and it solves serious problems with disclosure by nonprofit groups and by super PACs which are playing such a major role in the elections. It’s going to be very hard to come up with arguments for voting against the bill. That’s not going to alone decide the battle, but it will focus the issue on basically one proposition: Should contributions being spent to influence elections be kept secret from the voters? Or do voters have a public right to know who is funding ads being run to influence their votes? We got a whole lot of arguments from opponents last time that didn’t address that basic question and had nothing to do with disclosure.

Last time, all the Democrats in the Senate voted to break a filibuster but we couldn’t get any Republicans. Democracy 21 and a number of other reform groups are going to work very hard to convince Republicans to vote for the new disclosure bill this time. Republicans traditionally have supported disclosure legislation, up until 2010 when politics took over. I’m not predicting what’s going to happen here, except to say that we have a stronger bill and a different dynamic this year with super PACs and the problems they have created front and center in the public’s mind.



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