As promised in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s January misruling in the case of Citizens United v. FEC — which essentially freed corporations to spend whatever they like to buy elections and influence policymaking — the Congressional Democrats have produced a legislative response.
But, while that response has some merit, it is insufficient — and potentially doomed.
The House’s 219 (217 Democrats, 2 Republicans) to 206 (170 Republicans, 36 Democrats) vote on Thursday approved a version of the "Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections" (DISCLOSE) Act, which is designed to impose a measure of accountability on corporations. The measure intentions are sound. It would, for instance, require most groups that run so-called "independent expenditure" campaign ads to disclose the identities of their top donors. This requirement is designed to expose the backdoor scheming by major corporations to promote their favored candidates and agendas using front groups.
The DISCLOSE Act also bars corporations with government contracts that are worth more than $10 million, along with corporations that have accepted federal bailout money, from engaging in independent political activity. And it bans companies with substantial levels of foreign ownership from mounting campaigns to influence U.S. elections.
All of these initiatives make sense, as President Obama argued in a statement hailing the action by the House and urging the Senate to advance the measure toward his desk.
"I congratulate the House of Representatives on today’s passage of the DISCLOSE Act, a critical piece of legislation to control the flood of special interest money into our elections," said Obama. "The DISCLOSE Act would establish the strongest-ever disclosure requirements for election-related spending by special interests, including Wall Street and big oil companies, and it would restrict spending by foreign-controlled corporations. It would give the American public the right to see exactly who is spending money in an attempt to influence campaigns for public office. The House bill is not perfect – I would have preferred that it include no exemptions. But it mandates unprecedented transparency in campaign spending, and it ensures that corporations who spend money on American elections are accountable first and foremost to the American people. I urge the Senate to act swiftly on its version of the bill, and I look forward to working with both chambers on prompt enactment of final legislation."
Unfortunately, the exemptions that Obama mentions — for membership organizations — are all but certain to inspire legal challenges that, considering the character of the high court, will likely be used to undermine the most significant components of the legislation. (Indeed, the exemption for the National Rifle Association was so unsettling that a number of the Democratic "no" votes came from progressive members representing urban district, especially from members of the Congressional Black Caucus.)
So, for all the high-minded rhetoric about pushing back at the court, the prospect remains very real that corporations will be able to meddle in elections with few constraints — and perhaps in ways that cloak their intentions and arrangements.
People for the American Way, one of a number of groups that is supporting a bolder response to the court’s lawless attacks on the democratic process — in the form of a Constitutional amendment that makes clear that corporations do not have the same political rights as citizens — had the right reaction to the DISCLOSE Act.
“The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United overturned a century of established law in order to give big corporations unprecedented influence in our electoral process," said Marge Baker, the group’s executive vice president. "We appreciate the work that members of Congress have done to try to dampen the effects of this disastrous decision and restore some transparency and accountability to our elections. As important as this measure is, in the long run the way to truly fix the damage done by Citizens United is to pass a Constitutional amendment to restore our government to the people."
A new poll, released this week by People For the American Way, finds that 77 percent of Americans—including majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans—now favor amending the Constitution to reverse the Citizens United ruling and to assure that the court no longer deliberately misinterprets the First Amendment to give corporations that power to dominite the debate and define the results of elections.
According to the poll, 74 percent of Americans say they would be more likely to vote for congressional candidates who favor amending the Constitution to prevent corporations from buying elections.
"It’s time," says Baker, "for members of Congress to catch up to their constituents and pass a Constitutional Amendment that will fully restore integrity to our democracy.”
And here is Public Citizen’s backgrounder on the amendment fight.