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Senate to vote on bill targeting super PACs, 'dark money' in politics

The U.S. Capitol building is shown after sunset Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The U.S. Capitol building is shown after sunset Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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The Senate will vote this week on a bill that seeks to change transparency laws surrounding money spent by super PACs and other groups from spending huge sums of money in federal elections without identifying where the cash is coming from.

The DISCLOSE Act, introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., would require organizations spending money in federal elections to disclose donors who have given $10,000 or more during an election cycle. It also includes safeguards to stop the use of shell corporations to hide the identity of the donor and would require groups to disclose the top five funders at the end of television ads.

The bill would also require groups that spend money on ads for judicial nominees to disclose their donors. Democrats say a rise in dark money spending on judicial nominations can create potential for conflicts of interest and undermine public confidence in the justice system.

“This bill would fight the cancer of dark money in our elections and require dark money groups to report campaign contributions,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “Americans deserve to know who's spending billions to sway our democracy.”

It also has the support of President Joe Biden, who promoted the legislation before heading to New York.

“Republicans should join Democrats to pass the Disclosure Act and get it on my desk right away. Dark money has become so common in our politics. I believe sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he said at the White House, adding so-called “dark money” erodes public trust.

In an appeal to Republicans, Biden invoked the name of late Sen. John McCain, who also supported campaign finance reforms. The bill is expected to stall in the Senate due to Republican opposition.

Good-government groups say that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has caused the money spent on election ads to skyrocket. The Center for Responsive Politics said super PACs, dark money groups and political parties spent $2.6 billion in federal elections in 2020, about twice as much as 2016.

Citizens United has remained a hotly contested issue among Democrats and Republicans in the 12 years since it was decided. Critics of the decision argue special interest groups are now able to sway elections with advertising from anonymous sources and hurts trust in government, while supporters say the case was a victory for free speech rights.

David Primo, a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester, said his research and other studies have found limited impact on trust in government and policy outcomes.

“Citizens United created more opportunities for corporations, unions, and individuals to spend money on elections, in part by paving the way for the creation of so-called ‘super PACs,’” said Primo, who is also co-author of “Campaign Finance and American Democracy: What the Public Really Thinks and Why it Matters.” “Some studies have found evidence that Citizens United shifted election outcomes, but the effects have been nowhere near as dramatic as predicted by reformers.”

Public faith in government is hovering around all-time lows. According to Pew Research Center, only 21% of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right most of the time or always. Sixty-five percent said most political candidates run for office to serve their own personal interests.

A majority of Americans also want to limit the amount of money individuals and groups spent on campaigns.

“You can’t blame voters for thinking this, given the way the media covers campaign finance,” Primo said. “The reality, however, is very different. Money is certainly an important ingredient in a winning campaign, but it will only go so far if you are not a strong candidate.

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“Campaign finance reform is held up as a cure-all for what ails American politics, but distaste for politics runs far deeper than money. My coauthor and I have conducted studies of reform efforts dating back to the 1970s, and we find no evidence that stricter campaign finance laws have a meaningful impact on faith in government.”

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