On its face, the DISCLOSE Act sounds like a good idea: by forcing big political advertisers to name the group behind their message, a greater level of transparency becomes possible. But dig a bit deeper into the particulars of the legislation and, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, red flags aplenty appear.
The Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act is a direct response to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which lifted restrictions on corporate funding of campaign advertising. In the wake of the court's action, President Obama cautioned that it could herald "a potential corporate takeover of our elections" and urged Democrats to prepare new campaign finance legislation.
The ruling meant that corporations foreign and domestic would be allowed to run political television advertisements ahead of national and local elections without telling voters who was paying for them, Obama said. The purpose of the DISCLOSE Act is to require groups to declare who paid for political advertising, including the naming of donors who've given as little as $600, according to the ACLU.
"Demanding disclosure for such a small amount of money violates AmericansÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ right to privacy, and will have a chilling effect on free speech in our elections," the rights group declared in a July 1 post. "Regulation like this can become a serious problem for supporters of controversial issues where anonymity is not just a matter of preference or convenience. The harassment and attacks on members of the civil rights movement show that anonymity can in fact be a matter personal safety."
They add that the DISCLOSE Act contains exceptions for large, mainstream groups with more than 500,000 members, which would not have to provide some details when buying political advertising. The ACLU contends such exceptions pose a threat to smaller, more controversial groups, which may see their right to political speech run over by the disclosure requirements.
"The ACLU supports the disclosure of large contributions to candidates as long as it does not have a chilling effect on political participation, but the DISCLOSE Act would inflict unnecessary damage to free speech rights and does not include the proper safeguards to protect AmericansÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ privacy," said ACLU legislative and policy attorney Michael Macleod-Ball, in a media advisory. "The bill would severely impact donor anonymity, especially those donors who give to smaller and more controversial organizations."
Republicans are almost unanimously opposed to the bill. Most in the GOP credit the Citizens United decision as a triumph of free speech and not, as the ACLU and other groups have said, an actual threat to the integrity of U.S. elections.
"You'd think that reducing corporate and even foreign influence over our elections would not be a partisan issue, but of course this is Washington in 2010," Obama said on Monday, slamming Republican opposition and urging Senate Democrats to pass the bill.
"This shouldn't be a Democratic issue or a Republican issue," the president argued in early May. "This is an issue that goes to whether or not we will have a government that works for ordinary Americans - a government of, by, and for the people."