By Debra J. Saunders
D.C. Democrats are pushing the DISCLOSE Act again. “DISCLOSE” stands for “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections.” The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Right to Life Committee oppose this bill because they fear it would chill free speech. As far as the anti-abortion group is concerned, “DISCLOSE” stands for “Deterring Independent Speech about Congress except by Labor Organizations and Selected Elites.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., frames this year’s bill, which failed to win a floor vote in the Senate on Monday, as a reform made necessary by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to allow independent expenditure campaigns to spend unlimited money from corporations, plutocrats and unions.
Problem: In the name of good government, DISCLOSE authors used every dirty trick in the dirty trick book. They deserved to fail before and deserved to fail Monday.
Whitehouse even dubbed his bill “DISCLOSE 2.0” in order to distance himself from the 2010 DISCLOSE bills. The 2010 Senate bill barred “electioneering communications” by corporations with federal contracts worth more than $10 million — which suggested a mind frame more committed to censorship than transparency. The 2010 House version imposed restrictions on corporations but exempted labor unions. After powerful lobbies complained, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., exempted the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club from their bills.
Also, the 2010 bills would have made DISCLOSE the law in 30 days — in time to help Democrats before the 2010 elections.
Whitehouse wisely stripped down the bill. Gone are the NRA exemption, the too-soon starting date and the ban on contractor donations. Instead, Whitehouse’s bill requires organizations that spend $10,000 or more during an election to identify big donors to the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours, starting in 2013. It seems simple.
But it’s not that simple. In a letter, the ACLU explained two big problems in the new bill: One, it strips donors to public advocacy groups of their anonymity, “subjecting them to harassment and potentially discouraging valuable participation in the political process.”
Californians may recall that some donors to the 2008 Proposition 8 campaign, which banned same-sex marriage, were subject to harassment.
Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington doesn’t buy the ACLU’s argument. “There is no First Amendment right to be free of the consequences of what you say,” Sloan said. “There’s just the right to say it.”
Two, Whitehouse’s bill has intrusive reporting requirements, even for “pure nonpartisan issue advertising that happens to mention a presidential or vice presidential candidate.”
David Keating, president for the Center for Competitive Politics, believes that the reporting requirements are onerous. As he sees it, the Whitehouse bill means that “if you want to say anything about the government, you have to register with the Federal Election Commission to do it.”
Also, because Whitehouse lengthened the reporting period, the ACLU warned of “a chilling effect on public criticism of the president or vice president, including truly nonpartisan criticism on specific policy issues, during more than a fourth of a president’s first term.”
Mitt Romney may be president in 2013. So liberals shouldn’t be too upset that the bill failed.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is email@example.com