This was a vote on passage of legislation requiring organizations to report all campaign donations over $600 to the Federal Election Commission and prohibiting organizations with a federal government contract worth more than $10 million from working actively for or against a political candidate or party through independent expenditures (spending on campaign ads). That prohibition also applied to foreign-owned corporations. Under the bill’s new reporting requirements (applying to donations in excess of $600), independent organizations (such as advocacy groups) airing political ads would be required to make previously confidential information regarding their donors public.
House Democratic leaders brought up H.R. 5175 in response to Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance law in January 2010. In that decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not prohibit unions and corporations from spending money on behalf of or in opposition to political candidates. To earn support from conservative Democrats, the Democratic leadership made last minute changes to the bill that exempted organizations which had existed for more than 10 years, had more than one million members, and received no more than 15% of their total funds from corporations. This exemption, or “carve-out,” was intended to exempt the National Rifle Association from the bill’s requirements. This change enabled conservative, pro-gun Democrats to vote for the bill.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) urged support for the bill: “Now, I ask my colleagues, will you stand with the American people in calling for disclosure and transparency in the political process, or will you allow corporations to overtake our democracy with the expenditure of undisclosed, limitless amounts of money? I think that we should stand with the American people. We should vote for the DISCLOSE Act [H.R. 5175]. Disclosure is good. Voters need to know who is saying what.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) also urged the House to support the bill: “The DISCLOSE Act would make a vast and substantial difference in protecting the integrity of our elections, and I cannot think of a more important bill if this country is going to remain a democracy with a small `d' and not a captive of large corporations.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) argued the bill was an assault on free speech: “`Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.' We all know that that is part of our First Amendment to the Constitution. It is first for a reason, because freedom of speech is the basis for our democracy, but today, the majority wants to pass a bill restricting speech, violating that very First Amendment to the Constitution.”
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) concurred, saying: “I am not sure that I have ever seen a frontal assault on the Constitution as this bill is. Why do I say that? I say that because this deals with the First Amendment. It deals with political speech. It deals with political speech at its most effective, which is in the context of a political campaign, and we ought to deal with that very, very carefully.”
The House passed the bill by a vote of 219-206. 217 Democrats – including a majority of progressives – and 2 Republicans – voted “yea.” 170 Republicans and 36 Democrats voted “nay.” As a result, the House passed legislation requiring organizations to report all campaign donations over $600 to the Federal Election Commission and prohibiting organizations with a federal government contract worth more than $10 million from working actively for a political candidate or party.