Republican senators vote to block a bill requiring dark-money groups to disclose their donors: ‘I don’t want to see them doxxed’

  • Democrats teed up a procedural vote Thursday on a bill to disclose dark-money groups’ donors.
  • Republicans blocked the bill, hindering Democratic efforts to increase transparency in elections.
  • GOP senators told Insider that revealing those donors would make them vulnerable to harassment.

Republican senators on Thursday voted to block a bill that would have required so-called dark money groups to disclose their donors, hindering Democrats’ efforts to increase transparency in elections.  

The Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act targets political nonprofit groups and super PACs, requiring them to reveal donors who have contributed more than $10,000 during an election cycle. The measure also applies to groups that spend money on ads supporting or opposing judicial nominees.

The bill failed to advance as 49 Republicans voted against it. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho did not vote.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer first introduced the bill in 2010 and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island has re-introduced it in every Congress since, after the landmark 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision allowed outside groups to spend unlimited sums of money on elections.

Nonprofits are not legally obligated to disclose their donors. Super PACs, on the other hand, are subject to federal campaign finance disclosure laws, but their funding often comes from dark money groups. 

Whitehouse told Insider on Wednesday that he believes the GOP’s widespread opposition is a demonstration of the party’s dependency on dark money.

“Unfortunately, the Republican party has become as dependent on dark money as a deep-sea diver is on his air hose,” said Whitehouse. “And so even though my colleagues know that the public hates this stuff, they try to respond to that hatred with their own efforts to paint us as a dark-money party. They have no choice but to vote against the DISCLOSE Act and protect their dark-money donors.”

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island at a hearing on Capitol Hill on April 4, 2022.

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island at a hearing on Capitol Hill on April 4, 2022.
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A long-running battle

This is not the first time Republicans have successfully blocked the bill from reaching the necessary 60 votes to open debate on legislation: it’s happened at least 10 times in the past 12 years, including with two standalone votes in 2010, two in 2012, and as an amendment to the budget in 2015.

More recently, a version of the legislation was included in the Democratic-led For the People Act, a sweeping elections and campaign finance bill that Republicans blocked last year. 

A particularly strong opponent of the bill is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who once compared efforts to disclose dark money groups’ donors to the “creation of a modern day Nixonian enemies list.” He reiterated his opposition on Wednesday morning, saying the bill would “erode the First Amendment.”

Insider spoke with a handful of Republican senators at the Capitol about their opposition to the bill ahead of the vote.

Both Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas invoked the 1958 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama Supreme Court decision, which blocked the state of Alabama — then largely led by segregationist Democrats — from forcing the NAACP’s local affiliate to disclose its membership lists, arguing that members had the right to “pursue their lawful private interests privately.”

“Racist Democrats wanted to go after the NAACP and persecute their supporters,” Cruz said. “Democrats have wanted to do this for a long time.”

“That’s the lens through which I think about this and analyze this,” Hawley said, arguing that broad donor disclosure would somehow be “weaponized” by Democrats. “I don’t want to see them doxxed, and hassled, and harried, and harmed, and that’s what this bill is about.”

Whitehouse scoffed at the argument, which Republicans and conservatives have made repeatedly over the years.

“If you can’t tell the difference between a regular member of the NAACP in the Jim Crow South, with organized violence constant,” Whitehouse said, “and a secretive billionaire donor manipulating American democracy through a phony front group, it’s gonna be very hard to explain any reality to you.” 

“There clearly is just a massive, massive difference,” he added. 

Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas at a hearing on Capitol Hill on April 4, 2022.

Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas at a hearing on Capitol Hill on April 4, 2022.
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A bipartisan problem

Since the Citizens United ruling 12 years ago, dark money spending has exploded in elections. Nonprofits have poured around $2 billion into elections, most of which can be linked to dark money groups, OpenSecrets found. The 2020 election cycle alone saw $1 billion in dark money spending, with most of those contributions benefitting Democrats, though dark money has long aided Republicans.

Cruz and Hawley also mentioned that Democrats benefit from dark money spending just like Republicans, which President Joe Biden noted when he promoted the bill in a speech on Tuesday.

“I believe sunlight is the best disinfectant. And I acknowledge it’s an issue for both parties,” Biden said. “But here’s the key difference: Democrats in the Congress support more openness and accountability.”

Whitehouse has called out dark money spending both on the left and right, though he’s has long held that conservatives have managed to use dark money to effectively push forward their interests, particularly at the judicial level with the nomination of conservative justices to the Supreme Court. His bill would have required groups that spend money supporting or opposing judicial nominees to disclose their donors. 

Additionally, Whitehouse’s bill applies regardless of political affiliations, and sets the threshold for disclosure at $10,000, ensuring that only the more wealthy and powerful political donors would have faced public scrutiny.

And donors are already required to disclose their identities when they give to candidates’ campaigns or other political action committees regulated by the Federal Election Commission.

When pressed on whether there’s any threshold at which it’s in the public interest to know who’s contributing to political causes, Cruz deflected.

“So at what threshold should George Soros’ contributions be public?” the senator said, referring to the Democratic megadonor and billionaire. 

Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama outside the Senate chamber on August 1, 2022.

Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama outside the Senate chamber on August 1, 2022.
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Among the senators voting to block the bill was Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, who was not aware of its content when Insider asked him about it on Tuesday but spoke favorably of the idea when it was explained to him.

“I’m not against people being identified, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “There’s so much money put into this, in this business.”

Though he noted that he had yet to read the bill.

“I’m saying that, but I gotta look at the text to see all the details,” Tuberville added.