People have a right to know who is trying to influence their vote. It is such a simple premise it is hard to imagine that it would be controversial. But what in Washington is not controversial these days? And so a bill requiring far greater disclosure of campaign spending by corporate, labor and other special interests was doomed before debate even began in the Senate Monday night.
The DISCLOSE Act - Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (there should be a moratorium on bill names that go to excessive lengths to produce a relevant acronym) - had become a Democrat bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, vowed to use all procedural means necessary to block it.
Certainly Democrats recognized that in bringing the bill to the Senate floor four months before the election they were partaking in a bit of political theater. Its lead sponsor was Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and the co-sponsors included Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal. All the Senate sponsors are Democrats.
Republicans were not about to line up behind a bill that will undermine a system that is working quite well for their soon-to-be-crowned presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, and Democrats knew it. Now, however, Democrats can use the Senate vote against Republicans.
That's politics, but in this case the Democrats are on the correct side of the debate. Arguments coming from the Republican side don't hold up to scrutiny.
Unlimited money from secretive sources is distorting the election process. Money is bundled and given to super PACs (Political Action Committees) to underwrite radio and TV commercials that typically use negative and often spurious attacks to tear down opponents.
The source of these attack campaigns are often categorized as nonprofit corporations, known as 501(c)(4) groups, that are legally supposed to focus on promoting public policy, but which are in reality campaign organizations.
The DISCLOSE Act would have required corporations, unions and other groups to disclose contributions of more than $10,000. The Federal Elections Commission would quickly make donor information available on its website. Voters would know who is helping pay for those ugly campaign ads. It is hardly a foolproof approach, but it would be a start.
But led by Sen. McConnell, Republicans contend that stripping such donors, particularly corporate donors, of their anonymity could make them targets of boycotts or other harassment. It is an effort, contends the minority leader, of undermining the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision in 2010 that opened the door to more big money in campaigns.
In truth the DISCLOSE Act would not conflict with Citizens United, rather it would provide for the vigorous debate the court envisioned when it threw out restrictions on corporate campaign spending as an infringement of free speech.
"With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and election officials accountable for their positions …" wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the majority opinion. "The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."
Eight of the nine justices endorsed this section of the opinion.
We vehemently disagreed with the court's premise in Citizens United that restrictions on corporate and special interesting spending in campaigns are unconstitutional. But if there is to be unlimited spending, there must be disclosure and the supporters of these attack ads should be prepared to stand behind their message and suffer the repercussions.
For political reasons such a bill will not, unfortunately, pass in time for the 2012 election. But such a law needs to pass post-electionion. The public should demand it.