Editorial Board

Disclosure Vote Leaves Trail of Broken Republican Vows

Republicans in the U.S. Senate Monday and again on Tuesday to block adoption of the Disclose Act, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s legislation to require disclosure of political donations of more than $10,000 within 24 hours of the money being spent. The votes were no less remarkable for having been predictable.

For years, congressional Republicans had vowed that disclosure of donations and spending was the one sure route to an honest campaign-finance system. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the field general who for two decades has organized the party’s attacks on campaign-finance regulation, including the McCain-Feingold reforms, once spoke eloquently of the sanctity of the First Amendment and of the merits of disclosure.

What’s more, because McConnell in the 1990s had also come around to opposing constitutional amendments against flag burning, he had credibility as a First Amendment champion.

Democrats have often supported Rube-Goldberg-inspired campaign-finance regulations, some based on a conviction that all political money is bad, others based on the belief that only the way their opponents raise money is bad. The Disclose Act, by contrast, is a fairly straightforward effort to subject political donations to sunlight, and keep the political bagmen at bay. It’s what Republicans for years had said they wanted.

Hypocrisy is a bipartisan affliction. But congressional Republicans have escaped the outer orbit of expediency with this week’s votes. Perhaps once you decide it’s acceptable to label the health-care policies you previously supported -- individual mandate, health-care exchanges, etc. -- as the trappings of dictatorship, your inhibitions disappear.

Although McConnell’s full reversal on disclosure is well known, he has lots of company, including the three top leaders in the House of Representatives. What follows is a sampling of words, compiled with help from the pro-disclosure Campaign Legal Center.

Speaker of the House John Boehner: “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 disinfectant.” (NBC, “Meet the Press” transcript, Feb. 11, 2007)

Majority Leader Eric Cantor: “Anything that moves us back towards that notion of transparency and real-time reporting of donations and contributions I think would be a helpful move towards restoring confidence of voters.” (Newsweek, “SCOTUS Ruling Spells Disaster for Political Transparency,” Jan. 21, 2010)

House Whip Kevin McCarthy: “I think people should disclose. I have no problem with disclosing information. And it should be that way.” (National Public Radio, Sept. 23, 2010)

Senate Minority Leader McConnell: “Republicans are in favor of disclosure. There’s a serious constitutional question, whether you can require people engaged in what’s called issue advocacy to disclose. But if you’re going to do that, and the Senate voted to do that, and I’m prepared to go down that road, then it needs to be meaningful disclosure, Tim. 527s are just a handful of groups. We need to have real disclosure. And so what we ought to do is broaden the disclosure to include at least labor unions and tax-exempt business associations and trial lawyers so that you include the major political players in America. Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?” (“Meet the Press,” June 18, 2000)

Senator Lamar Alexander: “I support campaign finance reform, but to me that means individual contributions, free 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. Otherwise, you restrict free speech and favor super-rich candidates -- candidates with famous names, the media and special interest groups, all of whom can spend unlimited money. (Washington Post, May 19, 1999)

Senator Jeff Sessions: “I don’t like it when a large source of money is out there funding ads and is unaccountable. To the extent we can, I tend to favor disclosure.” (The Hill, “Campaign finance bill has GOP wary,” April 22, 2010)

Senator John Cornyn: “I think the system needs more transparency, so people can more easily reach their own conclusions.” (McClatchy Newspapers, “What do both parties have in common? Wall Street donations,” April 25, 2010)

A charitable interpretation of these statements is that the words have no meaning. A less charitable interpretation is that they convey something important about the speakers.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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