In the Dark

07.17.12

GOP Kills DISCLOSE Act and Leaves Voters in the Dark

The Citizens United ruling assumed that transparency would prevent corruption--but the Supremes didn't count on Republicans killing the bill that would let that happen. By John Avlon.

The DISCLOSE Act was summarily executed via filibuster in the Senate last night. But this is one symbolic vote that mattered, because it offered at least an attempt to address the flow of hidden money into our elections.

But wait, you say—the promise of Citizens United was to balance unlimited money with unprecedented transparency. Well, brace yourself, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. In fact, the trade of cash for transparency has been undercut by a variety of vehicles, especially the use of 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations grafted onto super PACs that allow for anonymous donations and big-ticket expenditures that we won’t see until the election is in the rearview mirror.

It was a discordant day for the GOP to kill the bill, coming just as their candidate Mitt Romney was launching a new attack on President Obama for allegedly benefitting campaign donors with federal contracts. But propose an actual solution to the problem? Break out the Emily Litella glasses and say "never mind."

Look, bringing up a bill that attempts to clear up this potentially half-billion-dollar loophole never had much chance of passing just four months before a presidential election. But it is still disappointing to see it go down in a 51-44 vote. Because back in 2000, a similar proposal to increase transparency in election donations enjoyed bipartisan support—and in the last congress, the DISCLOSE Act passed the House and received 59 votes in the Senate. This version of the bill would have impacted unions as well as trade associations and 501(c)(4)s in the future. It was a balanced bill that could have compelled more disclosure on both sides.

Originally, conservatives like Mitch McConnell who backed the money-is-speech position offered the consolation prize of radical transparency and instant disclosure for all election-related spending, including independent expenditures. But now such a proposal represents, in McConnell’s words, an attempt to “protect unpopular Democrat politicians by silencing their critics and exempting their campaign supporters from an all-out attack on the First Amendment.”

The sinister sounding (and intentionally misleading) rhetoric can’t hide the decided shift in principle—which leads one to the not-so-surprising conclusion that it is not principle but the pursuit of power that determines positions in Washington. If you want to find what’s really happening, just follow the money.

"This filibuster gives hypocrisy a bad name," said Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center at NYU. "These same politicians were for the disclosure measure for years, until there was a chance it might actually pass. Now they are filibustering it."

Beyond the Kabuki theater of the reflexive filibuster is a serious problem that could have a determinative effect on the 2012 campaign. This election is going to be close, possibly coming down to two-to-four points in nine states. With those margins, even a half-million-dollar ad buy in a swing district can make a big difference, and it should not be too much to hope that at least local voters might know who is paying for the ads strafing their television sets.

The DISCLOSE Act was a balanced bill that could have compelled more disclosure on both sides.

That was the naive expectation of Justice Kennedy when he wrote in Citizens United that “with the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.”

Passage of the DISCLOSE Act could have helped make that vision something closer to a reality. Instead, it is as far away as ever, with millions of undisclosed dollars heading onto the airwaves and enriching partisan hacks in the process.

So yes, this vote on the DISCLOSE Act mattered. And the need for it will be even more apparent after the November election.