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Court Supports Electioneering Ad Disclosures

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Chris Van Hollen gained another victory in his quest to force the Federal Election Commission to write stricter disclosure rules for some political ads.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has won another victory in his legal battle to force the Federal Election Commission to write stricter disclosure rules for certain types of political ads.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected a request by two conservative groups that it stay a March federal district court ruling that sided with Van Hollen. Van Hollen sued the FEC last year, arguing that its disclosure regulations for “electioneering communications” were too narrow and contrary to the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

The appeals court ruling, which came late on Monday, raises the prospect that politically active trade associations and nonprofits will have to more fully report who funds the ads they run on the eve of an election.

The ruling doesn’t apply to campaign ads, which explicitly call for a candidate’s election or defeat, but to what’s known as electioneering communications — ads that picture or name a candidate 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election.

In 2010, an array of outside groups spent some $80 million on electioneering communications, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Such expenditures are expected to soar this year with the proliferation of politically active nonprofits in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that freed up corporate and union political spending.

In a statement, Van Hollen said the decision is “yet another important step in our continuing fight to restore transparency to our electoral process,” adding that  it signals that the public interest is best served by increased donor disclosure.

A key question is how major political spenders such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a social welfare group affiliated with the GOP super PAC American Crossroads, interpret the Appeals Court’s ruling.

On the one hand, the ruling leaves no doubt that the more comprehensive disclosure rules laid out in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act now stand. That law required groups paying for electioneering communications to publicly report all donors of $1,000 or more, or set up a segregated, fully disclosed fund for such ads. Some election lawyers speculate that politically active social welfare groups will now start to set up such funds.

“All groups making ‘electioneering communications’ are now on notice that we expect them to fully comply with the contribution disclosure provisions in the future,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said in a statement. Before Van Hollen took his case to court, political players could take cover behind FEC regulations that essentially required disclosure only of donors whose money had been earmarked for specific ads.

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