It’s called the DISCLOSE Act, which stands for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections. It is the first major legislation intended to counter a landmark decision in January by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the high court ruled that corporations and labor groups are permitted to spend unlimited funds in elections.

The court based its 5-4 decision in part on the First Amendment, essentially arguing that corporations are people, and as such cannot have their speech restrained by government. But critics — and there were many, including President Obama, a constitutional scholar — said the court effectively rolled back a century of limits on campaign donations.

Supporters of the DISCLOSE Act say it will require all organizations — businesses, unions, trade and advocacy associations — making political expenditures to make public their donors and appear on camera to stand by ads — something already required of candidates for federal office. It would also bar foreign-controlled corporations, government contractors and companies that have received government assistance from making political expenditures.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, and another Democrat and two Republicans in the House. It passed the U.S. House of Representatives on June 24 by a 219-206 vote that was largely along party lines.

Hawaii’s representatives, Democrat Mazie Hirono and Republican Charles Djou, voted “aye” and “no,” respectfully.

Djou explained his vote to Civil Beat in an e-mail statement June 25:

“It is ironic that so close to Independence Day, when we as a nation celebrate the freedoms that make this land unique, the majority in Congress would bring a bill to the floor that strikes at the core of our Constitution’s freedom of speech,” said Djou.

“While the bill is ostensibly concerned with transparency and fairness, the very manner in which it was fashioned — behind closed doors and in the dead of night — and the numerous carveouts for unions and select special interests, make the cry of fairness ring hollow.

“This measure carves out too many special exemptions for too many special interests. Instead of a fair campaign finance disclosure bill, the ‘DISCLOSE Act’ has become biased legislation that favors the Majority’s special interests to the exclusion of all others.”

Van Hollen, who is also chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, feels otherwise.

“This legislation will let the sun shine in at a time when so many Americans are already concerned about the influence of powerful special interests on our democracy,” he stated on his website when he introduced the bill April 29. “Every citizen has a right to know who is spending money to influence elections, and our legislation will allow voters to follow the money and make informed decisions.”

Djou Says Bill “Muzzles Free Speech”

Djou’s position on the bill is certainly infused by deeply-felt principles:

“I have always stood for a transparent and responsible government,” he said in his statement. “I believe all Americans, whether as individuals or in associations, have the right to make their voices heard in the political process. I am supportive of financial disclosures and public scrutiny of political contributions. Elections should be won on the force of ideas, not on bigger bank accounts or special exemptions by the government.”

But Djou, like politicians of both parties, also relies on boilerplate comments in making his case. An example:

“But instead of shining light into campaign finance, this measure muzzles free speech. Hurried bills and backroom deals make for bad legislation. This bill is as bad as the process that produced it, and is exactly what I came to Congress to stand against.”

Is Djou right, or Van Hollen?

A reading of the actual bill suggests it’s a decent start at mitigating the damage of Citizens United v. FEC. Good-government groups like Common Cause support it, although they’d like even stronger legislation.

An Imperfect Bill

But the DISCLOSE Act is not perfect. A clear carve-out in the bill was made for the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country. The exemption is for organizations like the NRA that have more than a million members, have been around for over a decade, have members in all 50 states, and raise 15 percent or less of their funds from business.

The DISCLOSE Act is now on the Senate’s calendar, where the co-sponsors include Democrats Chuck Schumer, Russ Feingold, Patrick Leahy and Al Franken. The Obama Administration helped develop the bill.

But Senate Democrats will have difficulty putting 60 votes together to withstand a Republican filibuster — especially in an election year.

You can track the progress of the bill, H.R. 5175, here.

Djou’s congressional campaign, by the way, has received over $200,000 from political action committees representing major businesses — i.e., special interests.

Hirono’s PAC haul, meanwhile, exceeds a quarter of a million dollars and comes from not only corporations but labor unions.

On Wednesday, by the way, Hirono and Djou split another vote — this time on the financial reform bill. The Democrat voted “aye,” the Republican “no.”

“Good for citizens,” said Hirono.

“”Expands government,” said Djou.

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