February 25, 2021

Van Hollen, Whitehouse, Cicilline Reintroduce DISCLOSE Act to Repair Americans’ Faith in Democracy, Require Transparency in Campaign Finance

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) joined Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) in reintroducing the DISCLOSE Act, legislation to combat the flood of anonymous special interest spending in American politics. The bill would require organizations spending money in federal elections to disclose their donors, allowing the American people to see who is attempting to sway their elections and gain control over their government. Senator Van Hollen authored and first introduced the DISCLOSE Act in the House of Representatives in 2010, where it passed but then narrowly failed in the Senate. He has joined in introducing it every Congress since.

“Special interest money is eating away at our democracy, disempowering voters and leaving them in the dark. The public has a right to know who is paying billions of dollars to try to influence their vote. We passed the DISCLOSE Act in the House of Representatives years ago, but it died in the Senate. As a result the public has been bombarded with ads paid for by corporations and special interests who hide behind secret money. It’s past time we get it done,” said Senator Van Hollen. “We must act quickly to return our democracy to the hands of the American people, and sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

“Americans are drowning in anonymous political attacks and misinformation,” said Senator Whitehouse, who has introduced the DISCLOSE Act in every Congress since 2012. “That’s because a dark-money ‘tsunami of slime’ is washing over our democracy with virtually no way for the public to see who’s behind it. No wonder Americans are losing faith in our political system. It’s time to require big corporations and anonymous ultra-rich donors to take responsibility for their crooked influence campaigns.”

“The only way we can fix what’s broken in Washington is if we first get secret corporate spending out of our elections,” said Representative Cicilline. “The DISCLOSE Act will bring this money out of the shadows by requiring dark money groups to disclose their donors. I’m proud to once again join Senator Whitehouse in introducing this bill today.”

Special interest influence over elections is a major problem in America. Citizens United and subsequent Supreme Court rulings permit super PACs and certain types of tax-exempt groups, such as 501(c)(4) nonprofits, to spend unlimited sums in elections. Many of those groups are not required to disclose their donors, allowing wealthy corporations and individuals to spend unlimited, undisclosed – or “dark” – money without being tied to the television attack ads and other electioneering activity the groups carry out. Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, spending by corporations, ultra-rich ideologues, and secretive front groups has exploded. Dark money in particular has skyrocketed, despite the Supreme Court, by an 8 to 1 margin in Citizens United, upholding disclosure requirements as a means for citizens and shareholders to hold elected officials and corporate spenders accountable. 

The DISCLOSE Act requires organizations spending money in elections – including super PACs and 501(c)(4) dark money groups – to promptly disclose donors who have given $10,000 or more during an election cycle. This will permit Americans to see who is really spending to influence elections.

The DISCLOSE Act contains a number of other important safeguards against special interest influence. The bill includes measures to prevent political operatives from using layers of front groups to hide donor identities. It includes provisions to crack down on the use of shell corporations to hide the identity of the donor by requiring companies spending money in elections to disclose their true owners. And it contains a “stand by your ad” provision requiring corporations, unions, and other organizations to identify those behind political ads – including disclosing an organization’s top five funders at the end of television ads.

The DISCLOSE Act will be vital in helping Americans understand who is behind the massive uptick in dark-money and other special interest spending in recent years. Dark money spending in our elections since Citizens United has now topped $1 billion, and the pace of spending by outside forces (i.e., not the candidates themselves) is accelerating. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, outside spenders—super PACs, dark money groups, and political parties—spent $2.6 billion in federal elections during the 2020 election cycle; that is roughly twice what was spent in the last presidential cycle in 2016.

A version of the DISCLOSE Act is slated for inclusion in Senate Democrats’ For the People Act, a sweeping package of pro-democracy reforms announced in January. On the heels of the rampant self-dealing and special interest control of the Trump administration, the For the People Act will overhaul America’s broken campaign finance system, make it easier to vote, and strengthen ethics laws. The Democratic House passed the For the People Act last Congress, only to be ignored by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Members of both parties long supported campaign finance disclosure prior to Citizens United. In 2003, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told NPR that spending in elections should be “limited and disclosed” so that “everyone knows who’s supporting everyone else.”  

Introduction of the bill follows the deadly assault on the Capitol on January 6. In the lead-up to the attack, groups backed by anonymous donors stoked the lie of a stolen election and organized the rally then-President Trump used to spur the riot. In a robocall issued at the behest of an anonymous donor, one such group encouraged “patriots” to “march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal.” Several of the groups are active spenders in federal elections and right-wing political causes.