Bipartisan bill would mandate donor disclosure in political ads

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Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) was one of three representatives to unveil a campaign finance reform bill Thursday. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A small, bipartisan group of representatives introduced a bill Thursday that aims to greatly increase transparency of political spending.

The Political Accountability and Transparency Act (H.R. 7267), sponsored by U.S. Representatives Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), would require any organization that runs political ads to disclose its top donors and tighten rules preventing candidates from coordinating with super PACs on independent expenditures, among other changes.

“For too long, we’ve allowed outside money to play an outsized and arcane role in our politics, blurring the lines between special interest groups and the candidates they support,” Rice said in a statement.

The bill, endorsed by several campaign finance reform groups, would require all television, radio and internet political advertisements to display the three largest donors to the organization paying for the advertisement, including super PACs and non-disclosing “dark money” groups.

It’s unclear whether the measure, if passed, would work as intended. Earlier this year, the FEC tried to increase disclosure of dark money groups’ spending on independent expenditures like political ads to disclose all donors giving at least $500 for “political purposes.” However, groups have already found a variety of ways to skirt these disclosure rules by reporting other dark money groups as their funders or simply claiming they should not be required to disclose at all.

More than $800 million in dark money has been spent on elections since the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision, 75 percent of which came from just 15 groups, according to an Issue One analysis of Center for Responsive Politics data.

The bill would clarify that outside groups and campaigns cannot coordinate on communications that mention a candidate starting 120 days before a primary and through the general election. That applies to all types of activity, including mail and canvassing literature.

Under the bill’s language, coordination on outside spending between an outside group and an individual who has not yet announced their candidacy would still be classified as coordination if the individual runs for office afterword.

“Strengthening the law requiring independence of candidates from outside groups is critical to loosening the influence that megadonors who fund super PACs holdover candidates and officeholders,” said Trevor Potter, President of the Campaign Legal Center and former Republican Chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

Megadonors increasingly fund outside groups. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson contributed $113 million this cycle, almost all of which went to outside groups spending to support Republicans.

Liberal donors Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer each spent around $60 million toward independent expenditures supporting Democratic candidates.

The bill also aims to end misuse of leadership PACs by clarifying that the “personal use” restriction on campaign funds applies to all committees, including leadership PACs. Issue One and Campaign Legal Center revealed widespread abuse of these PACs in a 2018 report.


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