July 31, 2010

Maintaining the Undue Influence of Wealth

In a 5-4 decision back in January, the Supreme Court found that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) exceeded its authority when it barred Citizens United, a conservative organization, from running ads for a movie attacking Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign.  As a result of this ruling, corporations, labor unions and advocacy groups are no longer forced to funnel money through political action committees to pay for advertising, and all restrictions on the amount they can spend have been lifted.  Although the Court upheld disclosure requirements that corporations spending $10,000 or more producing election-season ads must disclaim the source of that funding, the floodgates for outsized corporate, union and interest group influence were unquestionably thrown open.

Last Tuesday, an attempt to address some of the concerns raised by this ruling died in the Senate.  H.R. 5175, the DISCLOSE Act, sought to increase transparency around the role of corporate and special-interest money in national elections.  It required organizations involved in political campaigning to disclose the names of large donors and reveal their identities in any political advertising they funded. It also forbade foreign corporations, government contractors and recipients of TARP funds from making political expenditures.

It was not perfect legislation by any means, as, in order to advance it, compromises were made, including one that exempted long-standing, large non-profit groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA).  Its aims were fairly modest; it did not even attempt to curtail funding or campaign contributions from companies, unions or advocacy groups. The  DISCLOSE Act simply required that they state who was paying for their political activities.

So, why did a relatively simple and straightforward bill with such laudable goals fall?  Democrats were unable to break a Republican filibuster - all 40 GOP senators present stood against it - preventing the legislation from coming up for a vote.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's justification for the GOP position was that H.R. 5175 would effectively tilt the next election cycle in favor of Democrats by forcing conservative action groups and corporations to reveal their influence.  In Senator McConnell's eyes, this was somehow equivalent to an assault on free speech.

The truth is that this bill would have been a worthwhile first step in giving Americans a view into just who is funding what and who is backing whom.  Corporations are indeed more likely to make bigger donations, while union members and their smaller donations would have been protected (below a threshhold of $600) from disclosure.  But the same is true in reverse: unions donating at the organizational level would have to reveal themselves, and corporate employees donating individually could remain anonymous.

One of the fundamental aims of campaign finance reform is to encourage large numbers of small donations from a broad spectrum of donors, while diminishing the undue influence of wealth. This is not  - or at least it shouldn't be - an ideological proposition.  Rather, it is foundational to ensuring fairer elections, and Tuesday's defeat of the DISCLOSE Act is a loss for anyone who thinks influence should come from building consensus rather than from having deep pockets.


Bartonski said...

If the republicans are so worried about where their political contributions are coming from, perhaps this calls for a little more first amendment action, in the form of investigation by a free press.

Anonymous said...

The reason for anonymous donating is the same as why every democracy in the world has anonymous voting. It is to make sure no one is intimidated into (not) voting or campaigning for a certain politician, party or point of view.

PBI said...


I have some sympathy for that viewpoint, but there is clearly a difference between voting and funding campaign commercials, just as there is between smaller, individual donations and enormous corporate or organizational financial backing. In my view, the way the DISCLOSE Act was structured held no risk of the intimidation of individual donors, and I think consumers have the right to understand the political intentions of the companies they fund through commerce.

There is clearly a lot of territory between total secrecy and complete transparency, both of which are open to abuse. To me, the DISCLOSE Act seemed like a reasonable first step on that middle path.

lokywoky said...

I agree that the DISCLOSE Act would have been a good first step, but unfortunately, the Senate is where ALL legislation goes to die.

BTW, PBI, thanks for the visit to my blog - haven't been on there for a while - dealing with some stuff but feeling a bit better now. I just posted a review of Tony Judt's book "Ill Fares the Land". Have you read it?

PBI said...


Glad things are looking more positive for you!

I'm not familiar with Judt's book - I'll check it out on amazon...