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Ron Johnson joins all Senate Republicans to block bill aimed at disclosing big political donors’ identities

COVID prevented Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a cosponsor of the DISCLOSE Act, from voting.

By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT

A bill that would close loopholes which allow big political donors to remain anonymous failed in the Senate last month on a party-line vote. The bill needed 60 votes to clear the hurdle of the filibuster to advance, but was blocked 49-49 by Republicans. Every Democrat present voted in favor of the bill.

Neither of Wisconsin’s senators voted in favor of the bill, named the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act, though for very different reasons. Sen. Ron Johnson joined all his fellow Republicans in voting no. Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a co-sponsor of the bill, was absent for the vote because she was isolating with COVID, her press secretary said. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho also was absent.

Among several measures, the bill would expand the prohibition on campaign spending by non-U.S. citizens and make it a crime to establish corporations, companies or other entities with the intent to conceal the identity of a political donor. The DISCLOSE Act also would require organizations such as some corporations, labor unions and political groups to disclose within 24 hours campaign expenditures of more than $10,000 to the Federal Elections Commission.

Baldwin tweeted her support of the bill before and after it failed, noting that “Senate Republicans once again chose corporate special interests and dark money donors over election transparency by blocking the #DISCLOSEAct. Americans should know who’s influencing their vote.”

“My opponent is receiving funds from all sorts of dark money, outside groups. Democrats only have a problem with money in politics when it’s coming from folks who oppose them.”

Sen. Ron Johnson

In a written statement to The Badger Project, Johnson said he voted against the bill “because it was an attack on free speech and an attempt to stifle legitimate public debate.”

“This legislation would have furthered radical cancel culture by allowing institutions to go after those they disagree with politically,” he continued. “My opponent is receiving funds from all sorts of dark money, outside groups. Democrats only have a problem with money in politics when it’s coming from folks who oppose them.”

Johnson is currently running for re-election against Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin

Senate Republicans have repeatedly blocked the DISCLOSE Act in recent years.

With little to no chance of receiving 60 votes on the bill to defeat the filibuster, Democrats likely brought the bill to use against Republicans in the upcoming election, said David Canon, a political science professor at UW-Madison.

Still, it’s “a bit of a head-scratcher” that Republicans would be so uniformly opposed to the bill, Canon said.

“This is one of those issues that, on its face, doesn’t seem like it should be obviously partisan,” Canon said, noting that Democrats have had a campaign fundraising advantage over Republicans in recent elections.

“In general, tightening up on campaign finance laws, you would think, would help Republicans,” he added.

Canon also noted that in the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision, which freed independent organizations to spend unlimited cash in political races, the court’s conservative majority said Congress could still regulate campaign finance with more disclosure laws.

In that ruling, then-Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his opinion for the conservative majority that “the Government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.”

However, experts say a more recent Supreme Court decision — Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta — might make it easier for donors to remain anonymous, as it brought into question the court’s acceptance of disclosure laws. 

The Americans for Prosperity Foundation was founded by the powerful, right-wing Koch brothers’ network. The Supreme Court ruled in their case that the state of California could not force the foundation to reveal its donors in the context of preventing fraud in charitable fundraising.

The decision’s impact has yet to play out in the context of campaign finance.

After the failed vote on the DISCLOSE Act last month, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), released a statement saying, “Senate Republicans stood in lockstep with their megadonors and secretive special interests to protect the most corrupting force in American politics—dark money.”

“The DISCLOSE Act would shine a light on special interest spending to neutralize its toxic effect, giving Americans’ voices a chance to be heard,” he said. “The fight to pass this bill isn’t over.”

President Joe Biden said in a statement that “getting dark money out of our politics has been a bipartisan issue in the past.”

“My deceased friend, John McCain, spent a lot of time fighting for campaign finance reform,” Biden said.  “For him, it was a matter of fundamental fairness. And he was 100 percent right about that. Ultimately, this comes down to public trust. Dark money erodes public trust. We need to protect public trust.”

Earlier this summer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) released a statement about the DISCLOSE Act saying “unfortunately, inflation and tax hikes don’t exhaust Washington Democrats’ capacity to make trouble for the American people.”

McConnell called the bill “a seemingly annual liberal attempt to restrict political speech by threatening the privacy of those who see things differently from them.”

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.


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