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The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision was one that terrified me. The notion that corporate entities could spend in an unlimited fashion and hide it to influence our democratic process became a stark reality the second the court issued its egregious ruling.
Through the process of the creation of the DISCLOSE Act, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group has applauded the quick, initial response by Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen. The sponsors' ability to move in lockstep to address the unpopular overreach by the court in Citizens United vs. FEC has been masterful. But as much as PIRG strongly supports a response to the Supreme Court, the bill's new exemption for the National Rifle Association has taken it seriously off track.
The irony is obvious – a bill with the initial purpose of disclosing corporate contributions to elections would now exempt from disclosure corporate contributors to one of the nation's biggest spenders in American elections.
It would create a two-tiered system for political speakers – one for the NRA and one for everyone else.
For instance, if we look at the NRA's IRS forms from 2007 and 2008 (election year 2008), is total election cycle revenue added up to $579 million.
The bill currently says that "exempt C4s" can take 15 percent of their revenues in from corporations and still not trigger the DISCLOSE Act's disclosure regime. This means that the NRA can take $87 million and remain out of the public information stream.
Now the supporters of the carve-out will note that the NRA cannot take corporate funds specifically to spend on elections.
That is true.
However, this does not take into account the culture of D.C., which is built around "contributions with a wink and a nod." It is not a stretch to imagine that corporations will give to the general treasury of the NRA in order to free up individual donor money they would not have otherwise spent.
Over the long term, we hope that the DISCLOSE Act has a pathway forward without this carve-out. Though it cannot undo the court's decision, the DISCLOSE Act in Congress is intended to serve as a stopgap measure to improve disclosure of corporate contributions to political campaigns. Several provisions such as the ban on contributions from foreign companies and federal contractors, disclosure of political spending to shareholders, and other provisions are also important steps toward minimizing the worst impacts of the court's decision.
The bill needs to go back to its original purpose and ensure that all corporate contributions in elections are disclosed, not create a road map for subverting the rules.
The DISCLOSE Act can be the law that shines light on our elections process and allows people to know who and what entities are behind the political campaign ads they see and hear, and to put a stop to the campaign money shell game.
Jon Bartholomew is a policy advocate for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group.
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