As money continues to pour in to influence this year’s elections, U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. has won a round in his two-year-long legal battle to require advocacy groups to reveal secret donors.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit denied a request in May to stay a lower court’s ruling in Van Hollen vs. the Federal Election Commission. The lower court had ruled in Van Hollen’s favor that advocacy groups had to disclose their donors.
“This decision is yet another important step in our continuing fight to restore transparency to our electoral process,” Van Hollen (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington said in a statement. “The American people have a right to know who is bankrolling the ads that are designed to influence their votes.”
The lower court ruling reinstated 2003 FEC regulations that required full disclosure of donors underwriting the advertisements for nonprofit advocacy groups. In 2007, the FEC had issued new rules allowing for the donors to remain secret.
Van Hollen has spoken out frequently on the need to stem the tide of undisclosed campaign donations in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United in 2010. Critics of the high court’s ruling say it overturned nearly a century’s worth of earlier Supreme Court decisions and federal campaign finance laws.
Although super political action committees have been required to disclose their donors, tax-exempt groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had not been required. That has attracted donors who want to influence political campaigns but don’t want the publicity, campaign finance reform advocates said.
“This is a very important victory in the battle to end secret contributions being funneled into federal elections,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform advocacy group Democracy 21 that represented Van Hollen in his legal action.
“This case represents the first major breakthrough in the effort to restore for the public the disclosure of contributors who are secretly providing massive amounts to influence federal elections.”
In the ruling, the judges wrote that Congress was clear that all contributors of $1,000 or more were to be disclosed and that the Supreme Court in Citizens United supported financial disclosure.
Those seeking to block disclosure “provided no evidence that their contributors would face threats, harassment or reprisals if their names were disclosed, and thus they fail to demonstrate how the disclosure requirements prevent them from speaking,” according to the appellate court ruling.
The appellate court is scheduled to hear an appeal in the case later this year.
Van Hollen called the ruling a “ray of sunshine in a sea of secret, outside spending.” He said the legal case is just one part of a broader strategy to attempt to increase donor disclosure requirements, including passage of the Disclose 2012 Act, which would create new campaign finance reform rules in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United.
In the 2010 election cycle alone, the names of those who donated more than $135 million that was spent on ads to influence the elections would have been disclosed to the public, Van Hollen said.
The advocacy group the Center for Responsive Politics found that the percentage of spending from nonprofit groups had grown from zero in the 2006 election cycle to 42 in the 2010 cycle because of the FEC rule change.
The lower federal court ruled that the FEC had gone beyond what Congress had intended in allowing for the secret donors.
Van Hollen filed the legal challenge to the FEC’s interpretation in 2010.
Repeated calls to the FEC’s attorneys were not returned for comment.
The FEC consists of three Democrats and three Republicans appointed by the president. The commissioners serve a six-year term.