The calls I have received from reporters of late have been concentrated on two subjects: the looming disclosure of super PAC donors and the status of the “do-nothing 112th Congress.”
I will soon tackle the realities behind Congress’ activity and outputs, or lack thereof, in the 112th, which have contributed significantly to the abysmal approval rating Congress has been enduring for the past year-plus.
It is good that we will have some disclosure of the mega-donors to the spate of super PACs that have dominated the landscape and the airtime across the presidential primaries and caucuses so far — but it is ridiculous that reporting requirements are so lame that the first disclosure in six months will not come until after voters in Florida have made their perhaps pivotal choice in the Sunshine State’s Republican presidential primary.
And even then, the disclosure will cover only the period to Dec. 31 — meaning it will miss the key infusion of cash before New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. And then we will go back into disclosure hibernation through the rest of the key primary season.
But that is at least an area of campaign activity that requires some kind of disclosure, however woeful. Then we have the ruse being used by groups such as American Crossroads GPS — manipulating the tax code knowing that a feckless IRS won’t even enforce its own regulations, to create 501(c)(4) organizations that do not have to disclose any of their donors because they claim that political activities make up only a fraction of their overall work (LOL). And we have the ability of major corporations to hide their campaign donations by using the cloak of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
After Citizens United, Congress moved to try to close some of the gaps with the DISCLOSE Act, introduced in the House by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and in the Senate by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). The bill passed the House on a near-party-line vote in 2010 and died in the Senate on the shoals of a filibuster.
All 59 Democrats voted for cloture, meaning the bill to provide meaningful disclosure would have made it through with the support of one of the 41 Republicans — a group that, of course, included Sen. John McCain, co-author of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act known as McCain-Feingold that was upended by Citizens United, and Sen. Olympia Snowe, co-author of the key feature of McCain-Feingold that was especially singled out by the Supreme Court in Citizens United.
Shamefully, not a single one of the Republicans, including many others who had long supported disclosure, voted for the bill, and we are now reaping the whirlwind.
One reporter who did not call me about this issue was CNN’s Erin Burnett, who anchored a show on Jan. 27 that shows why so many observers of our politics are frustrated with the inadequacies and myopia of so much of the mainstream media who practice what journalist James Fallows calls “false equivalence.”
Burnett started her piece on super PACs and disclosure by saying of the lack of disclosure overall, “This is a situation where what you’re seeing is each side not wanting to disclose and saying, ‘Well the other side isn’t going to disclose so I’m not going to disclose, instead of everyone shaking hands and saying we should all disclose. It’s good for America.’ Like we said, Democratic and Republican bipartisan loophole action, at least something is bipartisan these days.”
She then turned to Dave Levinthal of Politico, who said, “Well, of course, the Democrats want to blame the Republicans and the Republicans want to blame the Democrats, but you’re right. This is not exclusive to any one party, and is this going to change? Well, Congress tried to change it back in 2010. They tried to pass a piece of legislation called the DISCLOSE Act. Well, it went nowhere.”
Both parties have plenty of actors and allies willing to exploit the laws and loopholes in the campaign finance system. But contrary to Burnett, Levinthal and CNN, the lack of disclosure is the fault of one party; a failure to give accurate information to Americans to hold the politicians appropriately accountable makes CNN at least an unindicted co-conspirator.
A revised and streamlined version of the DISCLOSE Act will reappear this year. We might also see action by the White House on a proposed executive order applying to companies that do business with the federal government the same standards of disclosure to the new wave of corporate and union contributions to independent political activities as exists for direct campaign contributions.
Unless reporters do their job and tell the truth about who really walks the walk on trying to reform the secrecy regime in campaign finance and who abandoned the pretense of supporting disclosure to protect the big donors, the sorry status quo will almost certainly prevail.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.