The lawsuit seeks to throw out Federal Election Commission regulations adopted in 2007 that let the groups keep secret the names of donors who pay for pre-election ads. Van Hollen is also the author of proposed legislation to accomplish the same goal. A 2002 campaign finance law named for Senate sponsors John McCain and Russell Feingold required that groups report their ad spending to the commission.
“The disclosure of campaign-donor information is essential to our democracy,” Van Hollen of Maryland, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said. “The requirements in existing law have been significantly loosened by the FEC’s interpretation.”
Judith Ingram, an FEC spokeswoman, declined to comment.
The commission’s rule required outside groups to disclose only those donors who gave money specifically for political ads.
Former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter, a Republican who helped draft the McCain-Feingold law, said in an interview that the commissioners “have incorrectly rewritten” the law when they adopted the 2007 regulations. Potter is president of the Campaign Legal Center, which is part of the legal team that brought today’s lawsuit.
After the 2008 election, the FEC’s counsel suggested that the commission authorize an investigation into whether the independent Republican-leaning group Freedom’s Watch should have disclosed its donors. The three Republican commissioners blocked the probe, saying disclosure was required only if the donations went for specific ad.
Van Hollen’s lawsuit and a related petition asking the FEC to require groups funding independent political expenditures to disclose their donors as well come a day after White House press secretary Jay Carney said that President Barack Obama was considering an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose contributions made to political groups.
The actions are a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January 2010 that reversed decades of precedent and legislation and gave corporations and unions the ability to use their treasuries to run political ads through Election Day.
Van Hollen’s legislation to require groups to disclose their donors was twice blocked by Senate Republicans last year.
In the 2010 elections, in which Republicans won a House majority and narrowed the Democrats’ Senate edge, Republican- leaning outside groups spent $184 million, about $100 million more than Democratic-leaning organizations, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, a Washington-based research group.
Of the five Republican groups that spent the most money, four kept their donors hidden, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, an organization founded by former White House aide Karl Rove.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org