Cicilline, Whitehouse Introduce DISCLOSE Act to Repair Americans’ Faith in Democracy

WASHINGTON – Today, Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) led 197 colleagues in both houses of Congress in introducing the DISCLOSE Act 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.

“The only way we can fix what’s broken in Washington is if we first get secret corporate spending out of our elections,” said 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.”

“Americans are drowning in anonymous political attacks and misinformation,” said 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.”

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.  

A number of leading good-government organizations cheered introduction of the bill.

“In the eleven years since the Supreme Court’s overreaching decision in the Citizens United case, we’ve seen the amount of secret political money in our elections explode,” said Lisa Gilbert, Executive Vice President, Public Citizen. “Despite this, we have yet to take meaningful action to grapple with the realities of this out-of-control spending and our system of democracy has suffered. Public Citizen applauds Senator Whitehouse and Representative Cicilline for reintroducing the DISCLOSE Act to begin to repair our dark money crisis.”

“Democracy 21 applauds Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative David Cicilline for the important national leadership they are providing in reintroducing the DISCLOSE Act to require disclosure of the secret contributions currently being spent in federal elections,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. “The DISCLOSE Act closes a gaping loophole in the campaign finance disclosure laws which has allowed more than a billion dollars in unlimited, secret contributions, or dark money, to be spent through nonprofit groups to influence federal elections.”

“The DISCLOSE Act, would close avenues for secret election funding by tracing big political donations back to their true source, eliminating loopholes in reporting requirements and requiring greater disclosure for LLC donations,” said Trevor Potter, President of the Campaign Legal Center. “The candidates who benefit from dark money spending often know where the money came from, but the public does not. Real transparency about who is spending big money on elections will mean more government accountability, less influence for wealthy special interests and less political corruption.”

“All Americans deserve to know who is trying to influence our voices and our votes. However, when corporate special interests and ultra-wealthy donors continue to spend tens of millions of dollars of secret money in politics, we are all left in the dark,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, President of Common Cause. “The DISCLOSE Act would shine a light on secret money in politics to ensure the wealthy and powerful cannot hide their secret agendas, and we commend Senator Whitehouse and Representative Cicilline for introducing this common sense legislation.”

“Transparency is critical to a democracy that’s open and accountable to the people, but our current system allows the elite donor class and corporate special interests to spend unlimited money in secret,” said Tiffany Muller, President of End Citizens United/Let America Vote Action Fund. “The DISCLOSE Act would shine a bright light on these entities so that, at a minimum, we know who’s behind the flood of dark money. If anyone or any entity wants to spend Big Money in our elections, they should have the courage to stand by their ads. We’re incredibly grateful to Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Cicilline for their tireless advocacy and leadership on this issue, and we look forward to making sure this bill becomes law.”

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.

In addition to election disclosure requirements, the DISCLOSE Act requires groups that spend money on ads supporting or opposing judicial nominees to disclose their donors. These provisions are based on the Judicial Ads Act, which Senator Whitehouse sponsored with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to combat dark money influence over judicial nominations. Due to the rise in dark money spending in judicial nominating fights, judges can oversee cases involving litigants who spent millions to get them on the bench, creating the potential for serious conflicts of interest that undermine public confidence in the judicial system. The legislation would identify donors who fund advocacy campaigns aimed at confirming their favored nominees.  

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.

The text of the bill can be found here.

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