The Senate will vote this afternoon on the DISCLOSE Act, a campaign finance bill responding to the Supreme Court’s January decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
President Obama, who blasted the Court for its ruling lifting curbs on corporate and union political speech at his State of the Union address, urged Senators to support the DISCLOSE Act in a Rose Garden speech Monday.
Obama’s speech was full of what CBS called “campaign trail-type rhetoric” and mischaracterizations of the legislation, designed to bolster the wavering fortunes of Democrats as midterm elections approach.
In a P.R. campaign designed to pressure wavering Republicans, Obama and congressional Democrats are obfuscating the worst parts of the bill and engaging in outright misinformation.
“You’d think that reducing corporate and even foreign influence over our elections would not be a partisan issue,” Obama said. “[But] the Republican leadership in the Senate is once again using every tactic and every maneuver they can to prevent the DISCLOSE Act from even coming up for an up or down vote.”
That’s false. The Supreme Court decision did not allow foreign corporations or governments to spend money to influence U.S. elections. That’s long been prohibited. The decision does allow U.S. companies with international shareholders to spend money on politics. The First Amendment rights of American shareholders should not be stripped away because of a minimal, non-controlling amount of foreign investors.
President Obama continued spinning, claiming that the bill is simply about disclosure.
“Nobody is saying you can’t run the ads—just make sure that people know who in fact is behind financing these ads,” he said.
Actually, Democrats are saying you can’t run the ads: if you’re a company with a government contract of over $10 million (like more than half of the top 50 U.S. companies) or if you’re a company with more than 20 percent foreign shareholders, you can't even mention a candidate in an ad for up to a full year before the election. What's remarkable is that these provisions would prohibit speech that was legal even before the Supreme Court decision. There are no similar prohibitions for unions representing government contractors or unions with foreign membership.
In a Monday conference call with reporters, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate sponsor of the DISCLOSE Act, claimed that it was “completely balanced” and “treats unions and corporations the same.”
Schumer was addressing an exemption he removed from the House bill which exempted large financial transfers among union affiliates. Nonetheless, three provisions remain that advantage Democrats’ union allies while restricting business groups: a threshold of disclosure that effectively exempts unions while ensnaring business groups and the aforementioned restrictions on businesses with government contracts and international investment.
Schumer simply removed one of many special deals for unions that was inserted the day before the House vote. This cosmetic change to the DISCLOSE Act does not change the fact that it plays favorites with First Amendment rights and rewrites campaign finance law to advantage the majority party mere months before the midterm elections.
In one of the most egregious aspects of the bill, House Democrats inserted a provision to exempt large, established interest groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club from the bill's disclosure provision. This would set up a two-tiered system of First Amendment rights: one standard for the most powerful lobbying organizations and a tougher standard for most other grassroots groups.
Republicans—and Democrats who seriously care about First Amendment rights—should filibuster the DISCLOSE Act to ensure that all groups may speak out about politics.
Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, is chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics.