Campaign Financing Disclose Act Stalls—for Now

There wasn’t any real suspense about how the Senate would vote today on a bill known as the Disclose Act, which would require a corporate or union sponsor of a campaign ad to physically appear in it so the public knows where the backing is coming from. Without a single Republican stepping forward to support the legislation and not all Democrats certain to vote for it, the expectation was that the Senate would fall short of the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster, and indeed they did, with the final tally 57 votes.

Normally when defeat is certain, President Obama is not out in the Rose Garden making an urgent appeal for passage, but these are not normal times. This is an election year with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate at risk, and from now until November, the president’s task is not so much to pass legislation but to draw bright lines between the Democratic and GOP agendas.

The Disclose Act passed the House last month 219 to 206, with just two Republicans voting for it (Rep. Anh Cao of Louisiana, a Vietnamese immigrant who on occasion votes with the Democrats; and Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware, who is running for the Senate, and presumably wants to cast a wider net than a straight-down-the-line Republican). Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen led the fight in the House and in order to secure the necessary votes made some awkward compromises, notably an exemption that allows large special-interest groups an exemption from the sunshine provision if they meet certain criteria. Those criteria—more than a million members, in existence for at least a decade, and with funding of less than 15 percent from corporationsturned out to be conveniently tailored for the National Rifle Association.

Democrats are haunted by the memory of 1994 when passage of the Brady Bill and an assault-weapons ban helped cost them control of the House. With so many conservative Blue Dog Democrats running scared, the Democratic leadership didn’t want to add a Second Amendment fight to the already big burden shouldered by Democrats trying to hang on in Republican-leaning swing districts.

In the Senate, the politics were equally tricky. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Russ Feingold spearheaded the effort, and they took out a labor-friendly provision that the House had inserted that would have allowed a national organization like the AFL-CIO to transfer campaign money for candidate ads between and among state affiliates without disclosure. As a result, the labor union withheld its support from the legislation, which made it easier for some Democrats to vote no as well if they chose, and muddied to some extent the message that the Obama administration is trying to get across of one party unified on the side of the angels, and the other party lined up with corporate interests.

The Disclose Act was generated in the wake of a January Supreme Court decision that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money to sponsor campaign ads. Democrats believe they will be disadvantaged by large amounts of corporate money coming into campaigns, especially when the voters cannot identify the source. “Corporate lobbyists will be able to tell members of Congress, if they don’t vote the right way, they will face an onslaught of negative ads in their next campaign,” Obama said on Monday in the Rose Garden. “And all too often, no one will actually know who’s behind those ads.” Obama likened the reforms in the bill to “a matter of common sense,” allowing the American people to make up their own minds once they see who is behind the financing of the ads they’re seeing.

Common sense, yes, but that’s not how Washington operates. Democrats vowed to bring the bill back for repeated votes in an effort to highlight the GOP’s obstruction.