Legislation would end the scourge of dark money in American elections
Monday, February 27, 2023
Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden joined Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Representative David Cicilline (D-RI-01) to introduce the DISCLOSE Act. The DISCLOSE Act is bicameral legislation that would end the corrupting influence of dark money, shine a bright light of transparency on political spending, and make government more accountable to the will of voters.
“My colleagues and I are supposed to work for ‘We the People’ – for waitresses and truck drivers and home health aides and firefighters, not for the tiny fraction of the top one percent who have hoarded enough wealth to fund superPACs,” said Merkley. “Dark money allows for donors with special interests to hide their identities, making it impossible for Americans to know who is behind the massive flow of money into our elections and what motivates them. There’s no place in our democratic republic for hidden expenditures by special interests to buy our elections. It’s long past time for Congress to pass this bill and to stop billionaires from secretly buying our elections.”
“Oregonians and people nationwide are rightfully disgusted by the preposterous amounts of dark money billionaires flood into our elections,” Wyden said. “I urgently call on Congress to pass the DISCLOSE Act to make our democracy more transparent and reveal the big corporate donors behind massive political advertising campaigns. Enough is enough.”
Special interest influence over elections is a major problem in America. Citizens United and subsequent Supreme Court rulings permit super PACs and certain types of tax-exempt groups—such as 501(c)(4) nonprofits—to spend unlimited sums in elections. Many of those groups are not required to disclose their donors, allowing wealthy corporations and individuals to spend unlimited, undisclosed—or “dark”—money without being tied to television attack ads and other electioneering activity the groups carry out. Even foreign enemies can try to corrupt American democracy through dark-money channels.
The DISCLOSE Act requires organizations spending money in elections—including super PACs and 501(c)(4) dark-money groups—to promptly disclose donors who have given $10,000 or more during an election cycle. In addition to election disclosure requirements, the bill requires groups that spend money on ads supporting or opposing judicial nominees to disclose their donors.
Senator Merkley has been a longtime supporter of the DISCLOSE Act, which was included in the For the People Act that he authored, and has worked tirelessly over the years to bring awareness to the legislation and call upon colleagues to put the interests of the American people over those of powerful special interests.
In the 13 years since Citizens United, spending by corporations, ultra-rich ideologues, and secretive front groups has exploded. Dark money in particular has skyrocketed, despite the Supreme Court upholding disclosure requirements by an 8-to-1 margin as a means for citizens and shareholders to hold elected officials and corporate spenders accountable. Since 2010, dark-money groups have poured over $2.6 billion into federal elections. At least $3 out of every $10 in outside spending reported to the Federal Election Commission since Citizens United can be traced to dark-money groups.
This bill includes a number of other important safeguards against special interest influence, such as measures to prevent foreign governments and their agents from interfering in U.S. elections, including in state and local ballot measures. It includes provisions to crack down on the use of shell corporations to hide the identity of the donor by requiring companies spending money in elections to disclose their true owners. And it contains a “stand by your ad” provision requiring organizations to identify those behind political ads—including disclosing an organization’s top five funders at the end of television ads. Senator Wyden is a longtime advocate of transparency in political spending and he authored the first federal “stand by your ad” provision in 2002.
In addition to election disclosure requirements, the DISCLOSE Act requires groups that spend money on ads supporting or opposing judicial nominees to disclose their donors. Due to the rise in dark-money spending in judicial nominating fights, judges can oversee cases involving litigants who spent millions to get them on the bench, creating the potential for serious conflicts of interest that undermine public confidence in the judicial system. The legislation would identify donors who fund advocacy campaigns aimed at confirming their favored nominees.
The DISCLOSE Act will help Americans understand who is behind the massive uptick in dark-money and other special-interest spending. Members of both parties long supported campaign finance disclosure prior to Citizens United. In 2003, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told NPR that spending in elections should be “limited and disclosed” so that “everyone knows who’s supporting everyone else.”