Republican senators on Thursday blocked a bill that would require super PACs and “dark money” groups to disclose donors who contribute $10,000 or more during an election cycle.
The 49-49 procedural vote fell along party lines. The bill needed 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster and advance to beginning debate on the legislation. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, and Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, were not present and did not vote.
Super PACs are already required to report donors who contribute $200 or more, however, they often receive large contributions from allied political nonprofits, which are not required to report their donors. For example, One Nation, a political nonprofit tied to former George W. Bush aide Karl Rove, contributed $33.5 million to the Senate Leadership Fund this cycle. On the Democratic side, the political nonprofit Majority Forward, has given $27.3 million to the Senate Majority PAC. Neither One Nation nor Majority Forward are required to disclose their donors.
According to a statement from the office of Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, who introduced the DISCLOSE Act, the bill also contained provisions to require shell corporations spending money in elections to disclose their owners and corporations as well as a “stand by your ad provision requiring corporations, unions, and other organizations to identify those behind political ads – including disclosing an organization’s top five funders at the end of television ads.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, called the legislation a “liberal pet priority…designed to give unelected federal bureaucrats vastly more power over private citizens’ First Amendment rights and political activism.”
Ahead of the vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer argued that McConnell’s claim that the proposed disclosure requirements would infringe on an individual’s privacy “get to the point of absurdity.”
Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he supported the bill because individuals who are able to cut million dollar checks “can tilt the tide of an entire election with a single donation,” adding that “at a bare minimum, the public has a right to know, simply to know, who is behind these massive donations.”
President Joe Biden also promoted the bill on Tuesday, saying that “dark money has become so common in our politics” and that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
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Biden and other Democrats have benefited from dark money themselves. The nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets estimated that the 2020 election saw more than $1 billion in dark money, including $174 million that went to supporting Biden.
Nonetheless, Democrats have repeatedly pushed for political spending reforms following the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which deemed political spending by corporations and unions as a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. Iterations of the DISCLOSE Act have previously passed the House, but none have passed the necessary 60-vote threshold in the Senate due to Republican opposition to the measure.