In the dark



In a conference call with reporters the other day, Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, said that the Senate Republicans should remain true to their convictions concerning a key facet of campaign finance reform. After all,  the proposed DISCLOSE Act would require that special interests reveal the names of the backstage deep-pocket donors who will bankroll the election-season political ads - and it's the Republicans who have long said that they support the credo of full disclosure.

Potter, a Republican who was appointed to the FEC by the first President Bush, said on the phone that the DISCLOSE Act would at least mitigate the worst damage wreaked on the political process by the U.S. Supreme Court's recent horrific decision to permit virtually unlimited special interest spending in federal elections. Under the proposed reform law, he said, at least the public would know "who is doing that spending" - which is better than having a flood of autumn ads sponsored by mysterious front groups with nebulous names, "something like 'Paid for by Americans for a Better Country,' and you have no idea who that is or who actually paid for those ads."

But what bugged Potter the most was the Senate GOP's current lockstep obstruction to any such disclosure. "That pains me," he said, "particularly because, for years, (my fellow Republicans) said that, 'well, all we needed was disclsoure.' And now that that's all we're going to get (in a reform law), they don't want us to have that either...So I have been urging Republicans to step forward...What I'm hoping is that Republican senators who have long stood for (disclosure) will reach across the aisle."

Reach across the aisle?! Cue the laughter.
Today's GOP would never listen to someone like Potter anyway. In today's GOP, a Republican from the senior Bush era is probably dismissed as a flaming socialist.

So, yesterday afternoon, when the DISCLOSE Act came up for a key Senate vote, every single Republican (including conviction-free John McCain, the erstwhile campaign reform champion) blocked its path and ensured that voters will be kept in the dark. The bill itself is far from perfect - it has some awful compromises, most of which were designed (in vain) to attract moderate Republicans - but the principle was solid and quite simple to comprehend: The public has the right to know who's laying out the big bucks for all those special interest ads; if well-heeled donors are free to spend whatever they want, then at least tell the public who they are.

And that's precisely what the Republicans have always argued in the past. That was candidate George W. Bush's position during the 2000 campaign.

That was Senator Mitch McConnell's position in 2000, when he said on Meet the Press, "Republicans are in favor of disclosure."

That was Senator Lamar Alexander's position in 1999 when he was running for president: "I speech and full disclosure. In other words, any individual can give whatever they want as long as it is disclosed every day on the Internet."

That was Senator Jeff Sessions' position just three months ago: "I don't like it when a large source of money is out there funding ads and is unaccountable...I tend to favor disclosure."

That was Senator John Cornyn's philosophical position just three months ago: "I think the system needs more transparency, so people can reach their own conclusions."

That was House GOP leader John Boehner's position in 2007: "I think what we ought to do is we ought to have full disclosure, full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think that sunlight is the best disenfectant." But when the DISCLOSE Act came up in the House a few months ago, Boehner voted No.

If the Senate Republicans had hewed to their "full disclosure" principles, they would allowed the bill to advance. The most unwieldly provisions might have been stripped out. On a tight timetable, a new reform law might have been ready for the autumn midterms, so that the public would not be in the dark about the backstage donors. But yesterday the No team squelched that scenario.

There is a belief in some quarters that the Republicans might actually pay a political price for their hypocrisy; one Washington political commentator said yesterday that the Senate GOP's successful obstruction of the reform bill "could have a tangible effect on midterm elections in November." But that kind of forecast could only have come from a Washington commentator.

From my perspective outside the Beltway, I have a hard time believing that the average person will go to the polls four months from now and say, "Hey, honey, I'm gonna vote for all the Democratic candidates, because I'm still ticked off that the Senate Republicans prevented the Democrats from successfully invoking cloture on that DISCLOSE Act last July."

And as for the Democrats' autumn plans to paint the Republicans as captive allies of shadowy corporate interests - on the eve of the Senate reform tally, an Obama spokesman said that "the Republicans seem poised to vote en masse for the corporations" - I'll simply note that the public has long viewed the Republicans as "the party of big business," even while often supporting that party at the polls. Yesterday, the Senate Republicans obviously calculated that their hypocrisy on full disclosure will not hurt them in 2010, not in this current political environment. And they may well be right.