Editorial: Travesties

Senate Permits Secret Spending and Its Own Delayed Reporting

Posted July 27, 2010 at 5:06pm

With all Republicans voting against cloture Tuesday, the Senate killed the DISCLOSE Act and opened the way for corporations, unions and other special interests to secretly collude in influencing federal elections with big money.

It’s a travesty and, along the way, it perpetuates a more modest travesty — the Senate’s failure to require electronic filing of its own Members’ campaign finance reports.

DISCLOSE, of course, was Congress’ flawed effort to marginally counteract one of the great political travesties of recent history: the Supreme Court’s abandonment of a century of fitful efforts to limit corporate influence in political campaigns, and more than a half-century of similar action directed at labor unions.

Outrageously finding that corporations, unions and activist groups are “persons” entitled to full free speech rights under the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority permitted them to spend unlimited funds from their treasuries on independent campaign advertising.

The DISCLOSE Act (for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections) could not reverse the high court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, but it would have required those mounting advertising campaigns to reveal who paid for them and for CEOs to appear on camera endorsing the ads.

Republican leaders — who for years have been claiming that disclosure was all the campaign finance reform America needed — opposed the bill on the grounds that it would “chill” free speech.

It’s a totally bogus claim. Defeat of the bill now opens the way for corporations, unions and other special interests to form euphemistically named coalitions and spend millions advocating the election or defeat of candidates — without anyone knowing who is behind them.

The bill is flawed because it was written to exempt groups such as the National Rifle Association, AARP and the Sierra Club from disclosure requirements, but this was not a fatal flaw in as much as the interests of these groups are well-understood. And as distasteful as such loopholes are, this one was needed to get the bill through the House; among other considerations, moderate Democrats feared to vote against anything that might be interpreted as a vote against the interests of the mighty NRA.

Absorbed into the bill — and now defeated, as well — was the latest effort by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to require electronic filing of Senate campaign funding reports.

The defeat perpetuates the onerous, time-consuming, expensive and anachronistic paper filing of reports with the Secretary of the Senate, scanning and then hand-coding data for release by the FEC.

Senators are free to file electronically, of course, but ironically one of those who doesn’t is Sen. Charles Schumer. The New York Democrat is the chief sponsor of DISCLOSE, chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and a co-sponsor of Feingold’s legislation.

The Senate can’t undo all travesties, but Schumer can correct this small one by voting Feingold’s bill out of his committee as a free-standing measure.