The House on Thursday hotly debated, then passed, the DISCLOSE Act (HR 5175), which could stem some of the expected new flow of political ad dollars into the mid-term elections.
The vote was 219 to 206.
The bill is a response to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision last fall, which allows corporations and unions to directly fund ads supporting or opposing candidates (so-called electioneering communications).
It would require enhanced disclosures for those expenditures, including having the CEO's of companies appear in TV and radio ads to take responsibility for them. It would also reimpose the ban on direct funding for corporations with at least $10 million in government contracts or for companies with at least 20% foreign ownership, and only 5% if owned by a foreign nation or their representatives or wealth funds.
Opponents of the bill have argued that the additional disclosures could add up to 15 seconds or more, which would take 15-second spots out of the equation entirely, and threaten 30-second spots. Bill backers have pointed out that the bill includes a hardship exemption if it was impossible to convey the substance of the ad along with the disclosures.
What debate there was brought out strong words on both sides, particularly after the House rules committee set aside only an hour for debate on the base bill. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) pointed out that the rules committee had given a total of 41 hours to debate about the naming of post offices, but that the DISCLOSE Act, whose contents were not disclosed until a yesterday, got one hour. Lungren called that a disgrace.
John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that the Citizens United decision had been abhorrent and onerous, and that the bill was simply about whether corporations' control of the body politic was to be completely "without reservation whatsoever."
Lungren and other Republicans talked about the bill's violation of the free speech rights of corporations, which aren't just commercial entities, they said, but advocacy groups as well. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) minced no words in response. Corporations are not human beings, he said, adding that their sons can't be sent off to war or their mothers die of cancer. Instead, he called corporations "zombies consuming the flesh of profit."
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said that Republicans were just trying to favor big business so that more Republicans could get elected. BP entered the conversation more that once as a the Democrats' poster-company for a foreign controlled entity that they did not want influencing U.S. elections. In fact, an amendment was approved that would reimpose the ban on direct funding for the holders of certain holder of certain off-shore leases.
Carve-outs from the bills for unions drew particular ire. Lungren said the inequitable treatment was the result of an auction behind closed doors. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) said there was a difference between unions and corporations. Union members, he said, are transparent in who they are supporting. He said shareholders should also know who their money is being used to support or oppose in campaigns.
At least one Democrat registered some discomfort with the treatment of unions in the bill. "I don't like amendments with exemptions for certain entities," said Rep. Michael Castle (D-Del.), adding, "Perhaps that will be fixed in the Senate."
Minority leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the bill restricts speech so that the majority can silence its political opponents during the next election. He said that instead of being a bill that would apply equally across the board, it contained loopholes to help friends and silence foes.
He said that anyone who voted for the bill had violated their oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.