DISCLOSE Act

Vote on small move toward transparency should show the Senate’s true priorities

The United States Senate is expected to take up the DISCLOSE Act on Monday. How it fares should say a great deal about the senators honest view of democracy and what they really value.

Officially called the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act, the bill is attempt to inject a small measure of openness into the secretive world of campaign spending by outside groups. It is a narrowly crafted measure that would impinge on no one’s liberty and limit no one’s freedom of speech. It would simply add a little bit of transparency to a now secretive – and increasingly important – aspect of American elections.

The DISCLOSE Act was first introduced in 2010 in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case. That decision effectively unleashed a flood of previously banned campaign spending and encouraged the now-familiar Super PACs. The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit working to enhance government transparency, says that so far in this election cycle, Super PACs have spent almost $140 million, while millions more may have already been spent by nonprofits set up to hide donors’ identities.

If enacted, the DISCLOSE Act would do nothing to stop that. It would not even shine a light on all of it. It would only require corporations, unions, Super PACs and other such groups to report within 24 hours of making a campaign expenditure of $10,000 or more. Likewise, the names of donors who give $10,000 or more to the organization would have to made public, unless they specify the money cannot be used for a campaign.

This is neither draconian nor a final answer. It would not end or even necessarily reduce the unhealthy and dominant role of money and fundraising in American politics. Nonetheless, it is a small and decidedly necessary step toward greater transparency.

How much money a candidate can raise is a huge part of the current electoral process. Of even greater interest to the voters, however, is where that money originated. Not only is it good to know to whom a candidate might be beholden, but also who supports the candidate – especially if that interest group’s main concern is not among the candidate’s top issues. Under current law, all that can be hidden. Right now, foreign interest could even be funding candidates and we might never know.

We will know who supports the DISCLOSE Act, however, and who opposed it. And while that is not the same as true transparency, it too should be revealing.