Time has all but run out for the Senate to take a modest and reasonable step to restore sanity to out-of-control campaign spending. Although a majority of senators favor the DISCLOSE act, Republican lawmakers are blocking a vote. The measure, which passed the House last summer, proposes a basic requirement that people who donate hefty sums for election ads identify themselves. What’s wrong with that?
In this year’s midterm elections, at least $125 million was donated secretly to defeat or support various candidates. It was the first time in nearly 40 years that such large amounts of secret money influenced an election, for which the blame goes to the Supreme Court’s tragically misguided ruling in the “Citizens United” case. Because the money this year was given to outside nonprofit groups, instead of political parties or individual candidates, no accounting or disclosure was necessary.
An overwhelming majority of Americans favors limits on funding of campaigns by corporations or advocacy groups. A New York Times/CBS poll in late October found 92 percent of respondents supported disclosure of campaign expenditures and the donors’ identities. The DISCLOSE act simply would require those donating money to campaigns to stand up for their actions, rather than hide behind a shadowy front group.
The leaders of corporations or labor unions paying for the ads would need to appear in the commercial and declare that they approved of the message. That’s it. There’s no good reason to reject this limited step. The argument that donors could open themselves up to harassment is a red herring. In free and democratic elections, there’s no room for anonymous manipulation of the process.
Disclosure gives voters a fighting chance to assess the motives and accuracy of a given message. Without it, the audience can’t discern the donor’s real goals. That’s what the forces of the right want: to keep the public in the dark. In the past, Republican lawmakers opposed limits on campaign donations by arguing that full and immediate disclosure was the way to go. But now, even previous supporters of campaign disclosure such as Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, and Richard Lugar of Indiana all are wimping out. Their hypocrisy is no secret.
The Senate failed by one vote in September to pass this needed measure. And last week the Senate failed to bring up the legislation before leaving for the Thanksgiving holiday. Senators will return for votes this week, but there’s little room on their agenda. And next year’s incoming House speaker, Republican John A. Boehner of Ohio, has already said he doesn’t plan to reintroduce the DISCLOSE act. Republican lawmakers are encouraging a secret dismantling of open and fair elections, and it’s no secret where the blame lies.