In a setback for those trying to curb the secrecy behind election year 'issue ads' funded by shadowy special interests groups, the DC Circuit Court today overturned a lower federal court’s ruling which made public disclosure of such spending a statutory requirement.
The earlier decision, in the case Van Hollen v. Federal Election Commission, stipulated that nonprofit 501(c)(4) organizations like Americans for Prosperity and Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS as well as 501(c)(6) associations like the Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute would have to disclose their donors.
The 3-judge panel today said the previous judge was wrong when he determined that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill intended for more complete financial disclosure from such groups and argued that because of the Supreme's Court decision in Citizens United vs. FEC, the judge should review and reevaluate his decision.
"This decision dooms voters’ last chance of finding out who is intent on pumping millions of dollars into the elections. With 49 days to go, there’s still no sheriff in town, it’s the wild, wild west." —Bob Edgar, Common Cause
US Congressman Christopher Van Hollen (D-MD), who filed suit in the original case, issued a statement saying the DC Circuit Court's decision “struck a blow against transparency in the funding of political campaigns and reinstated the flawed regulation that rendered the disclosure requirements meaningless – made clear by the fact that millions of dollars of special interest money has flooded the airwaves with ads from anonymous sources.”
The court's action, he added, "will keep the American people, for the time being, in the dark about who is attempting to influence their vote with secret money.”
Disclosure and campaign finance reform advocates also slammed the decision.
“Today’s decision by the D.C. Circuit Court overturned one of the few glimmers of hope in campaign finance disclosure law,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Voters are being pummeled by campaign ads with no way to discover who is really trying to influence our elections.”
Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, said that big-money and corporate interests—who are spending millions to influence the outcome of the elections—were busy celebrating the decision, but that the "big loser" in the decision was the American people.
“This decision dooms voters’ last chance of finding out who is intent on pumping millions of dollars into the elections. With 49 days to go, there’s still no sheriff in town, it’s the wild, wild west," he said.
“People and companies making six- and seven-figure investments in candidates and causes will want something in return for their money," said Edgar, acknowledging that this creates inevitable incentives to serve their interests. "That’s why disclosure is so important; before we go to the polls, voters should know to whom the candidates we choose will be beholden."
And the Los Angeles Times adds:
Campaign finance reform advocates said they were not giving up, saying they still believed they had a strong argument to make at the district court level if the FEC chooses to defend the current rules.
“The Court of Appeals got it wrong,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “There is no way Congress enacted a statute to result in no disclosure of contributors when the statute calls for all disclosure of contributors.”
Wertheimer said his group would also continue to press the Internal Revenue Service to scrutinize the activities of groups such as Crossroads GPS that claim to be nonprofit social welfare organizations.
But he admitted that in the prospect of forcing such organizations to reveal their donors this year has been effectively shut down.
“They’ll go back to doing electioneering and claim that their campaign ads are not campaign ads,” Wertheimer said.