Feb. 22 (Bloomberg) -- As spending by outside groups financed by anonymous donors has escalated in election campaigns, some Republican lawmakers are rethinking opposition to legislation requiring organizations that run political advertisements to identify who’s paying for them.
“I saw really for the first time how funding directed in a very anonymous way can so significantly influence an election,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, re-elected in 2010 as a write-in after losing the Republican primary to a Tea Party-backed opponent.
Murkowski and Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, are drafting legislation to require disclosure of political donors. In the House, Republican Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina said he is talking with colleagues about a similar effort. Murkowski and Jones voted to thwart previous disclosure legislation.
Their new efforts follow a 2012 election in which the spending edge enjoyed by outside groups backing Republicans failed to win the party the White House or control of the Senate, and as Democratic-leaning secret-money groups spent millions themselves on attack ads.
“While there is a fundamental constitutional freedom of speech to write that check, there is a discomfort without any transparency,” Murkowski said.
The congressional discussions are taking place at the same time the Securities and Exchange Commission is considering whether to require publicly traded companies to disclose their contributions to outside political groups.
The greater role played by such groups in U.S. politics follows the Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision in the Citizens United case that relaxed limits on political contributions by corporations and unions. The ruling also sparked an explosion of political ads financed by nonprofit groups that aren’t legally required to reveal their donors.
Jones called transparency crucial to improving public opinion of Congress. A Jan. 30-Feb. 4 poll by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University showed 72 percent of Americans disapproving of the job performance by Republicans in Congress -- a figure that included 51 percent who are members of the party.
Jones said “one of the most serious problems” causing such negative views is “a perception of special-interest influence on policy decisions.”
Republicans have been reticent to call for disclosure by nonprofits, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Not one Senate Republican was willing to support bringing the bill up for debate in 2010 and again in 2012.
Groups not disclosing donors spent at least $314 million in the 2012 campaign, up from $126 million in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign spending.
The groups include Crossroads GPS, started with the help of Republican strategist Karl Rove; Americans for Prosperity, financed in part by billionaire energy executives Charles and David Koch; and Priorities USA, co-founded by Bill Burton, a veteran of President Barack Obama’s White House.
While Republican-leaning organizations spent more than 80 percent of the money outside groups funneled into the 2012 campaign, Democrats are trying to catch up, offering another reason for working out a bipartisan bill, said Craig Holman, who lobbies on campaign-finance issues for Public Citizen. Obama recently converted his campaign committee to a nonprofit group that can raise unlimited donations from anonymous donors, though the president has promised to identify its contributors.
“Republicans can see already that the Democrats are quickly learning how to emulate this whole dark-money scandal,” said Holman, whose Washington-based advocacy group backs increased disclosure. “It’s a game that everyone’s learning how to play. It’s going to be very ugly if we don’t rein it in.”
Lawmakers are increasingly concerned that they will face a barrage of negative ads shortly before an election from groups whose identities and positions are unknown, said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based group that backs greater disclosure.
“What happens now is many incumbents look at this and say, ‘I could be cruising along and come October, a group I don’t know about could spend millions of dollars against me,’” McGehee said.
With all 55 senators in the chamber’s Democratic caucus likely to support disclosure legislation, proponents would need five Republicans to overcome an anticipated filibuster by Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a longtime opponent of regulating political giving.
McConnell, in a July 2012 opinion piece in USA Today, said the effort for a disclosure bill was “an attempt to identify and punish political enemies, or at the very least, intimidate others from participating in the process.”
Anonymity “is an important part of our ability to take unpopular causes,” said former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith, chairman of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes campaign spending limits.
“This is a hard-won civil right,” he said, expressing concern that contributors could face threats or harm if their names were publicly disclosed.
Opponents of disclosure also say that spending by secret-money groups accounted for less than 5 percent of the $7 billion that Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub estimated was spent on the 2012 elections.
To attract Republicans to her push for disclosure, Murkowski said the legislation she and Wyden are crafting would affect all groups. The 2010 bill she opposed exempted some organizations from its requirements -- including the National Rifle Association -- and didn’t cover some spending by unions.
“I do believe it is possible to gain that bipartisan support as long as it is viewed as fair,” Murkowski said.
Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, chief sponsor of disclosure legislation in the last Congress, also wants a bill that can attract Republican support, according to his spokesman, Seth Larson.
Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who has introduced a disclosure bill, said Senate passage of legislation could pressure the House to do likewise.
“We need the dam to break on this,” Van Hollen said. “That will probably start in the Senate.”
Obama, silent on the issue in this year’s State of the Union speech, would sign a bill requiring groups running political ads to identify their contributors, said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com.