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The bell tolls -- twice -- for campaign disclosure

July 18, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, led Republican opposition to the DISCLOSE Act. At right is Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, led Republican… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)

Two times were not lucky for Senate supporters of the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that (beginning next year) would shed new light on the sources of political advertising and other election-related expenditures. On Tuesday, for the second time this week, Republicans blocked a vote on the legislation, reflecting the party’s new-found position that disclosure would intimidate donors wishing to exercise their 1st Amendment rights.

Never mind that even the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision reaffirmed the constitutionality of laws requiring disclosure of the identities of political donors. In a part of his opinion joined by every member of the court except Clarence Thomas, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote: "The 1st Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."

So what happens now? “Wait till next year” is the watchword. A new Congress may be more sympathetic to more disclosure of the money behind political ads, a new system of public financing for federal campaigns and possible changes in tax law governing nonprofits that engage in politics and keep their donors secret. 

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

The last phenomenon could be addressed without legislation. Campaign reform groups want the Internal Revenue Service to take a closer look at so-called 501(c)(4) organizations such as the pro-Mitt Romney Crossroads GPS, a “social welfare” organization that has funded ads attacking President Obama and other Democrats. In a case called Van Hollen vs. FEC, a federal court ruled that these groups would have to reveal the sources of some of their donations. The case is on appeal. The Obama campaign also has asked that Crossroads GPS be forced to register as a political committee and disclose all of its donors. That effort also could end up in court.

But the wheels of justice -- and regulation -- grind exceedingly slowly. So voters may go the polls unsure of exactly who is telling them to “tell President Obama” (or Romney) that he’s bad for America. Their best course may be simply to ignore advertisements bankrolled by ghosts.

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