Follow the Money Act Draws Criticism

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Announced last month by Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the Follow the Money Act was received with much acclaim from citizens and nonpartisan organizations. Groups like the League of Women Voters, the American Bar Association, and the Sunlight Foundation praised the proposed campaign finance reform package.

Currently referred to the Senate Finance Committee, S. 791 proposes to amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and the Tax Code to broaden disclosure and reporting requirements for Super PACs and 501(c) organizations that engage in electioneering or as the bill calls it, ‘independent federal election related activity.’

Alongside a ‘stand by your ad’ provision and instant disclosure for campaign donations, the act also raises the minimum disclosure threshold up from $200 to $1,000.

In the few weeks since its introduction, the Follow the Money Act has garnered some opposition as well. The Chamber of Commerce and the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) have come out against the act, claiming ‘speech-chilling’ and overly union-sympathetic language would disadvantage business interests. The CCP is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization and was founded by Bradley Smith, a former Republican Federal Elections Commission Chairman.

Citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v FEC, David Keating, President of the Center for Competitive Politics, and Eric Wang, senior CCP fellow, opined in a POLITICO op-ed earlier this week:

“Wyden-Murkowski ignores a series of landmark Supreme Court cases that struck down vague and over-broad requirements in earlier laws that bear a remarkable resemblance to their proposal.”

Critics of the proposed legislation argue the bill, in its current form, could be interpreted to force organizations that have not customarily been ‘political players’ to disclose donors — like the well-known American Crossroads or Priorities USA. This would also include groups like the Sierra Club, the ACLU, or even the Center for Competitive Politics or the League of Women Voters.

Still, criticism of the bipartisan proposal hasn’t remained confined to one pole of the political globe. Others, like Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, contend that S. 791 doesn’t go far enough to ensure proper disclosure of political donations. Similar to CCP’s criticism, he argues the subjectivity of determining ‘independent federal election related activity’ should not be left up to a dysfunctional and ineffective FEC.

No matter the critique, the Follow the Money Act is the only campaign finance reform package with bipartisan support and remains the only proposal before Congress. Similar attempts through the Disclose Act, sponsored by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), were filibustered by Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky).

This has left campaign finance reformers in a difficult position as they are faced with ineffectual enforcement institutions like the FEC, reluctant lawmakers touting First Amendment protections, and ever-adamant transparency hawks pushing for stronger rules — a precarious situation for reducing the influence of money in politics.