July 16, 2012; Source: Sunlight Foundation Blog

The Senate is expected to continue the debate of the DISCLOSE Act today after Democrats held a “midnight vigil” for the bill last night and into today to emphasize their support. Senate Democrats introduced the DISCLOSE Act yesterday, and though the bill drew support from a majority of the Senate, it was introduced without filibuster-proof 60-vote support so, as expected, Senate Republicans blocked it. Analysts do not expect any members of the unified block of Senate Republicans to change their position in order to allow an up or down vote on the bill today, a vote which would likely lead to its passage.

The bill would require groups to disclose their campaign spending of $10,000 or more and, in an effort to prevent political contribution laundering, it would mandate disclosure of fund transfers between organizations. Passage of the bill would likely make the current popular usage of 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations in political campaigns less attractive. Presently, as NPQ has frequently lamented, a donor may contribute to a 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofit organization, which may then distribute funds to a political super PAC, which may then use the funds to help a candidate, a process that enables “secret” contributions on the part of the original donor—a new fold in our electoral process that has already resulted in a massive influx of what some have termed “dark money.”

The DISCLOSE Act would have taken some of the secrecy out of that process, forcing contributors of $10,000 or more to stand behind their contributions rather than hiding behind the anonymity granted to charitable donors. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation offers a cogent summary as to why the DISCLOSE Act matters:

“All signs point to 2012 being the most expensive election ever. But it will be also be the hardest election in which to track spending since the creation of the modern campaign finance reporting system forty years ago. We increasingly have a campaign finance system in which large corporations and wealth[y] donors can influence elections anonymously, working through nonprofits. This is not good for the intellectual vibrancy of our democracy. In order for a democracy to function well, citizens need to be able to adequately evaluate political information. A key part of evaluating information is knowing where the information comes from, who is behind it, and what their intentions are… Democracy itself is an act of civic courage. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed by Anonymous. Those who sign the big checks should have the very same courage in their convictions.”

In describing Republican opposition to the DISCLOSE Act, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed a concern for those writers of big checks, noting that the revelation of influential donors such as the Koch brothers has led to President Obama creating “an actual old-school enemies list” that goes “to an extent not seen since the Nixon administration.” McConnell states that the Koches have “had their lives threatened, received hundreds of obscenity-laced hate messages, and been harassed by left-wing groups.”

We are left with competing needs. One one hand, we have the need of donors like the Koch brothers and others to engage in political spending (which is equivalent to free speech, according to the Supreme Court) without having to face threats that could potentially act as a deterrent to their exercising their political spending/speech. On the other hand, we have the need of the overall American populace to understand who is funding election campaigns.

NPQ recognizes that “majority rule” is not the law of the land. However, it seems that the risk to the likes of the Koch brothers could be mitigated with some thick skin and, if the threats listed by McConnell are serious, some bodyguards that they could surely afford. The risk to the vast majority of the American people—the plutocratic risk of having their elections bought and sold by unknown wealthy forces—is not so easily overcome without something like the DISCLOSE Act in place. And as we have previously noted, there is another risk of particular importance to nonprofits: the risk that 501(c)(4)s used as de facto campaign money laundering operations will tarnish the overall nonprofit brand immensely. –Mike Keefe-Feldman