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Context of 'July 24, 2012: House Democrats Try Again to Bring DISCLOSE Act to Vote'

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Chris Van Hollen, in an undated appearance on Fox News.Chris Van Hollen, in an undated appearance on Fox News. [Source: Associated Press / Politico]Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and other prominent Democrats file a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission (FEC) asking that entity to force the disclosure of political campaign donor information. In 2007, after a Supreme Court ruling (see June 25, 2007), the FEC drastically rewrote its disclosure requirements, creating what Van Hollen calls a “major loophole” that many 501(c)4 entities funded by corporate or labor union donations are using to operate “under a veil of anonymity.” Van Hollen and his colleagues say they want to force wealthy corporations and individuals to disclose who they are and how much they donate to political organizations. Currently, the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) allows such donors to remain anonymous, and the organizations that receive their donations to conceal the amounts they are receiving. Van Hollen cites the 2002 Bipartisan Candidate Reform Act (BCRA—see March 27, 2002) as applying in this instance. In the brief he submits for the lawsuit, Van Hollen writes: “The US Chamber of Commerce, a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $32.9 million in electioneering communications in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors; American Action Network (AAN—see Mid-October 2010), a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $20.4 million in electioneering communications in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors; Americans for Job Security, a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $4.6 million in electioneering communication in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors.” The lawsuit comes almost simultaneously with news that the White House is considering issuing an executive order that would require federal contractors to reveal their donations (see April 20, 2011). Democrats admit that even as they push the lawsuit forward, and President Obama publicly criticizes the practice of secret donations, they, too, are raising undisclosed donations for the various 2012 campaigns. Experts note that in most cases, Democrats’ efforts to raise undisclosed donations are far smaller than efforts by Republicans, and the amounts they are receiving are, so far, much smaller. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, who is leading Van Hollen’s legal team, acknowledges that the lawsuit will not alter campaign finance policy before the 2012 elections, though he says it is possible that the lawsuit could receive a favorable decision and force disclosure while appeals are pending.
Similarities to DISCLOSE Act - Both the lawsuit and the executive order are similar to sections of the DISCLOSE Act, a legislative package drafted by Van Hollen and other Congressional Democrats that was blocked by Senate Republicans from coming to a vote (see July 26-27, 2010). USCOC spokesperson Blair Latoff says the lawsuit and the order comprise a “desperate attempt by the White House and House Democrats to resurrect the corpse of the DISCLOSE Act.” (Law professor Steven D. Schwinn will refute Latoff’s accusation, writing that Van Hollen’s lawsuit in no way seeks to force the DISCLOSE Act into law via the courts.) Like the failed legislation, the lawsuit and the proposed executive order would work to curtail the effects of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, which allows virtually unlimited and anonymous political spending by corporations and other entities. The lawsuit argues that the concealment of donor identities contradicts both the law and the Court’s ruling, citing the following language in the majority ruling: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable.”
Seeks Change in FEC Regulations - The lawsuit specifically challenges an FEC regulation adopted in 2007 that contravened language in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (see March 27, 2002) that required disclosure of donations of $1,000 or more if the donations were made for the purpose of furthering “electioneering communications.” Another petition filed by Van Hollen’s group asks the FEC to revise a regulation that “improperly allowed nonprofit groups to keep secret the donors” whose funds were being used to pay for so-called independent expenditures in federal elections. [van Hollen, 4/21/2011 pdf file; Los Angeles Times, 4/21/2011; New York Times, 4/21/2011; Steven D. Schwinn, 4/25/2011; Think Progress, 4/27/2011]
'Sign of Weakness' - Bradley A. Smith, a former FEC commissioner and the head of the Center for Competitive Politics, a conservative advocacy group, says of the lawsuit: “This is a sign of weakness by a group that’s afraid they’re going to lose, and lose big. Again and again, you see evidence that their real purpose is to try to shut down their political opposition.” Smith and other conservatives say Democrats want to “chill” free speech. [New York Times, 4/21/2011]
FEC Will Refuse to Consider Accompanying Petition - In December 2011, the FEC will refuse to consider an accompanying petition on a 3-3 vote. [Commission, 12/16/2011; Commission, 12/16/2011] The vote is along partisan lines, with the three Democrats on the commission voting to consider the petition and the three Republicans voting against. The law prohibits the FEC from having a majority of commissioners from either party. [Think Progress, 1/21/2012]
Judge Will Rule in Favor of Plaintiff - In March 2012, a district judge will rule in favor of Van Hollen in the lawsuit (see March 30, 2012).

Entity Tags: Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Americans for Job Security, Barack Obama, American Action Network, Blair Latoff, Bradley A. (“Brad”) Smith, Steven D. Schwinn, US Chamber of Commerce, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, Chris Van Hollen, Fred Wertheimer, Federal Election Commission

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Representatives John Yarmuth (D-NY) and Walter Jones (R-NC) file a bill, the Yarmuth-Jones Disclose Act, that would amend the US Constitution to overturn the Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010) and take special-interest money out of American politics. The proposed amendment establishes that financial expenditures and in-kind contributions do not qualify as protected free speech under the First Amendment (see January 30, 1976, April 26, 1978, June 25, 2007, June 26, 2008, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 22, 2010, March 26, 2010, and December 12, 2011). It also makes Election Day—the first Tuesday in November—a legal holiday, and enables Congress to establish a public financing system that would serve as the sole source of funding for federal elections (see 1974, January 26, 2011 and After, June 27, 2011, and December 1, 2011). Yarmuth explains his proposal in the context of the Citizens United case, saying: “Corporate money equals influence, not free speech. The last thing Congress needs is more corporate candidates who don’t answer to the American people. Until we get big money out of politics, we will never be able to responsibly address the major issues facing American families—and that starts by ensuring our elections and elected officials cannot be bought by the well-off and well-connected.” Jones says in a statement: “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed. The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.” Jones is one of the very few Republicans in Congress who is willing to advocate for campaign finance reform. It is unlikely the bill will pass the Republican-controlled House, and Senate Republicans would likely block it if it made it to that chamber. Amendments to the Constitution require a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress before being approved by three-fourths of state legislatures. [US House of Representatives, 12/20/2011; WFPL, 12/20/2011; Think Progress, 12/20/2011] This is not the first attempt to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United and regulate campaign financing (see September 20, 2011, November 23, 2010, November 1, 2011, and November 18, 2011).

Entity Tags: Walter Jones, 2012 Yarmuth-Jones Disclose Act, John Yarmuth

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

House Democrats try yet again to bring the DISCLOSE Act, which would require corporate and union donors to publicly disclose their campaign contributions, to the chamber for a vote. They are joined by a lone Republican, Walter Jones (R-NC). Democrats so far have 167 signers on the motion to move the bill to the floor for a vote; they need 218. Most observers agree that House Democrats will not get the 218 signatures they need. Recently, Democrats were blocked by Senate Republicans from bringing the bill to a vote (see July 14-17, 2012). [The Hill, 7/24/2012]

Entity Tags: Walter Jones, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, US House of Representatives

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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