Van Hollen sues FEC over campaign disclosure
Rep. Chris Van Hollen sued the Federal Election Commission Thursday in an effort to strengthen disclosure requirements for groups that buy television advertisements in the final days of an election.
Known as “electioneering communications,” the ads became a central issue in the 2010 midterm election as millions of dollars of largely untraceable money flowed into close congressional races across the country. The spending, which benefited Republicans more than Democrats, became more widespread after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban on corporations engaging in the practice.
But Van Hollen noted that the Supreme Court case did not address disclosure requirements. In the lawsuit, he argues that the FEC has crafted its rules so that groups that pay for the ads can avoid disclosing donors. The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court.
“We have found that the requirements in existing law have been significantly loosened by the FEC’s interpretation,” the Montgomery County Democrat said in a statement. “The lawsuit I am filing today seeks to restore the statutory requirement that provides greater disclosure of the donors who provide funding for electioneering communications. If this standard had been adhered to, much of the more than $135 million in secret contributions that funded expenditures in the 2010 congressional races would have been disclosed to the public.”
The spending became a focal point for Democratic ire last year, including for President Barack Obama. Groups like American Action Network and Americans for Job Security spent millions on campaign ads in close congressional races without disclosing funders. Some of that money was funneled into Maryland’s First Congressional District last year to attack Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil, who ultimately lost the seat to Republican Rep. Andy Harris.
Electioneering communications include broadcast ads that air 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary election. The ads may mention a candidate’s name, but do not expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a particular candidate.
Several groups that relied on the spending last year criticized the action.
The lawsuit is less about legal issues and "more a crass political maneuver that aims to exempt his labor union allies from the scrutiny he wants to heap on his opponents," Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, said in a statement. "He doesn't want campaign reform, he wants gerrymandered campaign reform."
A spokeswoman for the Chamber of Commerce characterized the suit as a continued attempt by the White House to "ferret out and punish political foes." She tied the lawsuit to a draft White House executive order floated this week that would require companies seeking government contracts to disclose whether they had contributed to political ads.
"Along with the president’s draft [executive order], Rep. Van Hollen’s actions against the FEC are just another method to make sure the witch hunt can be completed before the next election," the spokeswoman, Blair W. Latoff, said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the FEC said the agency does not comment on pending lawsuits.
Separately, Van Hollen asked the FEC on Thursday to write tougher rules for “independent expenditures,” another form of third-party campaign expenditures in which outside groups may expressly advocate for a candidate’s election. Independent expenditures can be made at any point in an election cycle.
Van Hollen led the campaign arm of House Democrats in the last election. He also led an unsuccessful effort to strengthen campaign disclosure requirements in Congress after the Supreme Court decision.
“The two actions taken today by Representative Van Hollen seek to ensure that nonprofit groups and others making campaign expenditures will not be able to keep the donors funding their activities hidden from citizens and voters in the future,” Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said in a statement. The Washington-based campaign finance watchdog group is representing Van Hollen in the case.