Progressives divided on DISCLOSE

It’s DISCLOSE week in Congress: time for Democrats to finally release the campaign finance legislation they’ve been writing behind closed doors for nearly three months.

The contours of the legislation have taken shape, but the details of campaign finance legislation are important. So far, the chief sponsors, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, have kept the public in the dark.

Politico published a piece this weekend with an updated summary of the legislation. Politico‘s summary is notable because it differs from the public summary leaked last week from Van Hollen’s office.

Perhaps most notable, the new framework now contains a seventh plank on coordination that differs from the original framework released in February and the framework released last week. This version contains a loosening of coordination rules between parties and candidates. CCP has advocated for more lax coordination regulations after Citizens United as a way to allow candidates to more effectively respond to business, union and nonprofit advocacy without restricting First Amendment rights.

Several prominent Democrats have advocated loosening the coordination regulations for candidates and parties. DNC general counsel Marc Elias, who is advising congressional Democrats on the DISCLOSE Act, used his testimony at FEC hearings on coordination last month to advocate for this change. Elias argued that McCain-Feingold never intended to regulate coordination by political parties. Another influential Democrat, former FEC Chairman Robert Lenhard, testified at a February hearing of the House Administration Committee that Congress should abolish the restriction:

“Congress could take one relatively easy step to restore some balance to the system: it could repeal the limits on how much national political parties can spend in coordination with their candidates,” he wrote.

The new proposal is not perfect. Unlike Lenhard’s sensible suggestion to simply abolish the restriction, the framework only calls for loosening the restrictions “a bit.” Also, the framework still contains a restrictive definition of coordination for everyone else, which would unfairly sweep up protected issue advocacy.

The Politico summary also highlights the provision to provide a windfall subsidy to candidates and political parties if an organization dares to speak out about a candidate (omitted from last week’s framework). The giveaway, limited to specific media markets, would offer an even better ‘lowest unit rate’ than candidates already enjoy by virtue of ‘standing by’ their ads. Candidates already have the lowest unit rate for their ads, but this version is expected to be more robust: requiring TV stations to sell candidates non-preemptable air time at the lowest unit rate.

Also, National Journal’s Eliza Newlin Carney reports in her Rules of the Game column that Democrats are having trouble convincing liberal groups to support legislation they think will restrict their First Amendment rights, too:

Unions, civil rights organizations and progressive 501(c)4 advocacy groups have all quietly voiced concerns during the drafting process, and some may balk when details of the Schumer-Van Hollen plan emerge…

A big problem for Schumer and Van Hollen is that it’s a lot harder than it looks to clamp down on big-spending corporate interests without sweeping up politically active progressive groups friendly to Democrats, including unions. It’s the same problem President Obama faced last year, when he set out to bar lobbyists from his administration but ruffled the feathers of left-leaning nonprofit activists who felt shut out.

“It’s a really hard piece of legislation to [write] to be able to get at the ‘bad’ influence and not the ‘good,’ however that’s defined,” said Abby Levine, deputy director of advocacy programs at the Alliance for Justice, a progressive umbrella group. Alliance for Justice is one of several liberal 501(c)4 groups whose organizers fret that the Schumer-Van Hollen bill may inadvertently hamstring legitimate issue advocacy, Levine said.

Often lost in the debate over Citizens United is that the ruling opens up campaign spending not just for big, for-profit corporations but for incorporated organizations of all kinds, from unions to trade associations and nonprofit advocacy groups. Likewise, the Schumer-Van Hollen bill would impose complicated new disclaimer and disclosure requirements across the board, not just on corporate players but on a broad universe of politically active groups, including nonprofits subject to nominal disclosure now.

The Hill also reports that unions are-for now-balking on supporting new restrictions:

Richard L. Hasen, an election law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, Calif., said he was not surprised by the unions’ muted response to the bill. He said the labor movement has long been skittish of advocating for campaign finance reform because it could limit their political power along with industry groups.

“The unions have long had an ambivalence if not opposition to campaign finance reform legislation,” Hasen said. “They see this history of parity and are worried about whatever applies to corporations will apply to them.”