Trust Us: The DISCLOSE Act, Part II

The campaign finance regulatory community, always willing to join hands with Congress’s most partisan machine politicians, is giddy this morning with the introduction by Senator Chuck Schumer of the new, improved DISCLOSE Act, the campaign finance regulation law that didn’t pass the last Congress.

The 2010 version of DISCLOSE, though hiding under the guise of “just disclosure,” actually contained numerous provisions that would have limited speech that was legal even before the Court decisions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and v. Federal Election Commission. But it was not presented that way. Rather, it was presented as being all about disclosure.

There was populist Jim Hightower: “it’s still only a disclosure bill.”

And Meredith McGeehee of the Campaign Legal Center: “At its core, it is about ensuring that voters know who or what is behind the high-priced ad campaigns…”

The Center’s president, Trevor Potter, chimed in, “”For years the opponents of campaign finance reform said all we needed was disclosure, and now that that’s all we’re going to get.”

The New Republic dutifully informed (or misinformed) its readers that “the bill merely called to publicize who was putting money into politics, rather than limit that money… .”

Roll Call, the gray lady of Capitol Hill, endorsed the bill, arguing that “Disclaimers and disclosure are the essence of the DISCLOSE Act.”

The apparently exasperated House co-sponsor Michael Castle stated, “it’s just disclosure, for God’s sake.”

The very title of the bill and all the PR efforts were geared to describing it as a bill simply about disclosure, and as a result it was routinely characterized as such in the press. But even leaving aside the many provisions that expressly limited political speech, the bill was always about silence as much as “disclosure” As Senator Schumer said on introducing the bill, “the deterrent effect should not be underestimated.”

Now we are presented with “DISCLOSE 2.0.” In introducing DISCLOSE 2.0, the regulatory community seems to have admitted that back in 2010 it was, well, fibbing.

True, at the Huffington Post, at least one early reporter is sticking to the story that the original DISCLOSE Act was “not attempt to … put actual curbs on such spending.”

But elsewhere, that facade is gone. Fred Wertheimer, the longtime lobbyist who helped write the bill, says of DISCLOSE 2.0, “[t]his is a clean disclosure bill.” Wertheimer’s website claims that “Unlike the DISCLOSE Act considered in 2010, the legislation introduced today focuses solely on disclosure provisions.”  Other HuffPo reporters draw the distinction that the new version doesn’t contain the provisions expressly limiting political speech, although from this they draw the incorrect conclusion that it contains no “controversial provisions.”

The Los Angeles Times admits that “Unlike a previous version of the DISCLOSE Act that included restrictions on political activity … [DISCLOSE 2.0] is all about timely disclosure.”

But despite the “trust us” tone of the new rollout, “the deterrent effect” cited by Senator Schumer is no less an intent of the bill now than it was then. Senator Jeff Merkley, for example, has already admitted that the goal is to reduce political speech. The bill is necessary complained Merkley, because the freer speech ordered up by Citizens United and “is a stadium sound system drowning out the voice of the people.”

Despite the fact that DISCLOSE 2.0 is less likely to pass than DISCLOSE 1.0, having not a single Republican co-sponsor, and despite not having passed a budget in nearly three years, Senate leadership has apparently decided that DISCLOSE must be fast-tracked – a hearing will be held next week in the Senate Rules Committee.


The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.