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Disclosing who influences elections

The Senate is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to open debate on a bill, already approved by the House, that would unveil the identities of special interests seeking to influence election campaigns. Yet whether it is debated, let alone enacted, may depend on the willingness of moderate Republicans to put fairer elections above fealty to party.

The so-called DISCLOSE Act is a response to a wrongheaded decision in January in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations (and by extension unions) could spend unlimited amounts of money on broadcast advertisements and other election-related activities. The bill can’t undo all of the damage from that decision, but it would prevent corporations and unions from concealing their role in campaign advertisements and would require trade associations and many nonprofit advocacy groups to identify their major donors. It also would ban election expenditures by companies with significant foreign ownership or a government contract worth $10 million, as well as those that haven’t repaid assistance from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

But the centerpiece of the legislation is disclosure. In addition to requiring disclosure of individuals and organizations behind campaign advertisements, the bill would require chief executives or their equivalent to appear in an ad and endorse its message.

The bill is not perfect. To preempt opposition from the National Rifle Assn., supporters of the DISCLOSE Act cynically exempted from some reporting requirements some organizations with more than 1 million members (later reduced to 500,000). Overall, however, the bill would dramatically increase transparency in federal elections, and perhaps make unions and corporations think twice about airing advertisements that could easily be traced to them.

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The DISCLOSE Act passed the House on a largely party-line vote, and to forestall a filibuster, at least a small number of Republicans will have to support opening and cutting off debate on the bill. To do so, they need to resist specious arguments that the bill is skewed toward Democrats and hostile to free speech.

Even as it struck down limitations on campaign spending by corporations, the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, said that the government “may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements.” That is exactly what the DISCLOSE Act would do. It deserves not just a debate but enactment into law.


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