DISCLOSE Act redux as poll shows little support for provisions

As the general election increasingly dominates the political calculus, Senate leaders are intent on forcing another vote on the DISCLOSE Act before heading home to campaign in earnest.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, the sponsor of the campaign finance bill, has said the Senate will vote “again and again and again” on the bill designed to restrict the political speech of business groups and require onerous campaign finance disclosure. The reason? Many Democrats think the issue is a political winner.

A poll released today by the Center for Competitive Politics challenges that conventional wisdom. The results show that likely voters are deeply skeptical of the proposed disclosure regulations, think current disclosure thresholds are already too low and oppose the special treatment given to unions in DISCLOSE.

The poll, conducted Sept. 12 by Pulse Opinion Research, surveyed 1,000 likely voters. The margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percent.

Unlike many campaign finance polls issued by self-styled reform groups, we intentionally used neutral language and avoided playing up the virtues of the First Amendment or bemoaning political corruption.

In January, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that companies, unions and advocacy groups have a First Amendment right to advocate for or against the election of federal candidates.

An August poll by Voter Roll Call Surveys conducted for MoveOn.org asked, “Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that corporations can spend unlimited amounts to influence elections. Do you agree? Disagree? Or have no opinion on this decision?”

We asked whether respondents agreed with this statement: “Businesses, unions, and interest groups should be free to spend money asking voters to elect or defeat candidates for public office.”

We think it’s pretty clear which question attempts to skew the response and which question attempts to accurately describe the state of the law after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United to elicit an accurate response.

The most-cited poll on Citizens United—a February survey by ABC News and The Washington Post—has similar framing problems. That poll asked whether respondents “support or oppose the recent ruling by the Supreme Court that says corporations and unions can spend as much money as they want to help political candidates win elections?” At least this poll doesn’t single out corporations, but it still implies they could use limitless resources to directly aid candidates—yet the decision only allows uncoordinated, independent spending.

Partisans have been crowing for months that Congress needs to pass the DISCLOSE Act because this poll shows 80 percent of Americans opposed to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

But contrary to claims of a public backlash by “reform” groups, we found only 48 percent of respondents disagreed that businesses and unions should be able to spend.  Moreover, the intensity of that plurality opposition is low—only 27 percent of respondents strongly disagree with the ability of companies and unions to spend money on politics.

That hasn’t stopped congressional leaders from trying to undercut the decision. DISCLOSE passed the House, but Democrats were unable to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Schumer is reportedly considering stripping the business speech prohibitions in an attempt to win over moderate Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine on the disclosure provisions.

The Center’s poll, however, shows strong opposition to ratcheting up political disclosure requirements. DISCLOSE would place new requirements on citizen groups, unions, and business associations to disclose many of their members and contributors, even when those contributions were not marked for political communications.

But only 24 percent of respondents agree that the public has a right to know what organizations they contribute to while 69 percent disagree. Sixty-two percent think that contributors to political advocacy groups should not have their names reported to the government and publicly available while just 28 percent think such disclosure is warranted.

Despite rumors Schumer may strip the DISCLOSE provisions prohibiting the political speech of government contractors and companies with international investment, these provisions still remain and sources on Capitol Hill report that Schumer has yet to engage in any outreach whatsoever to moderate Republicans.

Poll respondents were generally supportive of organizations’ First Amendment right to spend money on political speech, and strong majorities rejected preferential treatment for labor unions.

Fifty-six percent of respondents agree with the statement that “[i]nterest groups represent the views of many American citizens with different priorities and should be free to spend money promoting their members’ interests in politics.” Just thirty-five percent disagree. Fifty-nine percent of voters also agree that a law prohibiting government contractors from running political ads should also ban unions that represent government contractor employees from running such ads (which DISCLOSE does not). Thirty percent disagree.

Democrats would be wise to scrap the DISCLOSE Act for good. Congress has yet to pass a budget and unemployment remains at 9.6 percent. Spending time on a bill that Schumer has stated is intended to have “a deterrent effect” on political criticism of Congress is not just bad policy—and politics.

Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, is chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group dedicated to protecting First Amendment political rights.

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