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News Opinion Editorial

Self-interest trumps democracy

With so many tens of millions of dollars flowing into political campaigns anonymously this year, it's hard to believe anyone would oppose some minimum level of disclosure. After all, it was Justice Anthony Kennedy who wrote in the infamous Citizens United ruling that "transparency" would ensure that voters could make "informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."

But those who might have assumed that even the most self-interested politician would be able to detect the threat to democracy posed by unlimited and undisclosed giving to political campaigns have probably never seen theU.S. Senatein action. This week, its members had a chance to rise above the partisan fray — and chose not to do so.

Republicans twice blocked the DISCLOSE Act (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections) on procedural votes Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon that fell short of the necessary 60 required for floor debate. The proposal, a watered-down version from what Congress has considered in the past, would require that nonprofits disclose the names of donors of every contribution of at least $10,000 that is used for political purposes.

Why the opposition? It's because GOP candidates are benefiting disproportionately from the current mess of campaign finance laws in the post-Citizens United era. Independent spending has already doubled from two years ago, and the majority goes to Republicans. Of course, that's not what the opposing senators are saying to justify their actions, but it's the only reasonable explanation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has tried to portray the transparency law as an effort to suppress free speech — essentially flipping reality on its head. His reasoning? If every millionaire's donation were reported to the public, they would all be harassed or retaliated upon by those with opposing views, thus suppressing their "free speech" contributions.

We kid you not. Senator McConnell does not simply disagree with transparency requirements, he has labeled them "un-American." And he says it with a straight face.

Opponents have also become gifted at muddying the waters and claim existing law already requires large contributions to be reported. That's true but only to an extent. Super PACs must, indeed, disclose — but not related 501c(4) tax-exempt organizations. That's the loophole that's making all the difference.

The definition of a "social welfare organization" has been stretched so far that it appears virtually any political group can claim that status. Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS is a prime example. Merely claim that your organization is promoting economic growth and you can take millions from rich, anonymous donors and target your least favorite elected officials, who will never know what hit them.

And this has become such a rich vein of support for Republicans that even the Senate's moderates and reform-minded voted to block DISCLOSE — including such stalwarts as John McCain and Olympia Snowe. Although such Senate veterans have supported much tougher campaign finance measures many times in the past, they don't even want the matter debated now.

Why? Because it's a huge embarrassment for a party that's trying to claim it doesn't represent the interests of the rich only. And the poster child for why DISCLOSE and other reforms are important is surely Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire gambling magnate who has given a fortune to GOP candidates (particularly Newt Gingrich), as he and his company are under federal investigation on possible illegal influence charges in connection with casino holdings in Macau.

Mr. Adelson would no doubt prefer to have the Justice Department overseen by a friend less interested in enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. How many secret donors may have similar motivations? How many would like help dodging the law, or to avoid particular environmental regulations, or keep a particularly lucrative defense contract, or push some other secret agenda? The American people can't know. Mr. McConnell and pretty much everyone else in his party don't want them to find out.

Whether it involves rich millionaires or Democratic-leaning labor unions, we have yet to hear of a campaign finance disclosure requirement that didn't sound like a good idea to us. As is so often the case, sunlight is the best disinfectant against public corruption. We would support outright limits on campaign donations, too, but that's a much tougher issue to crack given the court's decision. Disclosure is common sense, and if anyone richly deserves to be harassed, it's those who think secrecy is the best policy in matters of campaign finance.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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