Editorial: Missing Act

Congress Needs to Prevent Secret Money in Presidential Election

Posted December 14, 2010 at 5:27pm

In this unconscionably jam-packed lame-duck session of Congress, one important item didn’t even make it onto the schedule: a revived attempt to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would make corporate and union campaign expenditures more transparent.

Senate leaders left it off the agenda not because they didn’t have time amid the crush they created by not passing other vital legislation before the election, but because they had no chance of passing it.

The DISCLOSE Act (shorthand for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections) was blocked by Republican filibusters in July and September and there was no prospect that any GOP Senator would change his or her vote.

But consideration would have been appropriate for two reasons: the fresh memory of the avalanche of undisclosed independent spending in this year’s election and abundant public sentiment in favor of disclosure.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, outside spending by nonparty committees totaled more than $294 million this cycle, almost as much as in 2008 — and money spent without disclosure of its origin ($138 million) or only some disclosure ($17 million) exceeded the fully disclosed spending ($139 million).

Pro-Republican groups, led by American Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Action Network, outpaced pro-Democratic groups, $190 million to $91 million, reversing the 2006 balance, which was a comparatively puny $40 million for liberal groups and $20 million for conservative ones.

The difference, of course, was the U.S. Supreme Court’s odious Citizens United decision, in which a majority declared that corporations and unions are entitled to the same free-speech rights as citizens, reversing decades of precedent.

The floodgates are now open and the only recourse is to demand that those who spend the money disclose their donors.

The public wants it, as demonstrated by polls and by the recent conviction of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who was found guilty of funneling corporate contributions through the Republican National Committee to benefit Texas legislative candidates who were barred by law from receiving it.

A pre-election CBS poll found that 81 percent of voters favor disclosure of all campaign funds. DeLay may well escape jail — or even have his conviction reversed — because money-laundering statutes were written to apply to drug dealers, not wheeler-dealers. But the conviction was widely seen as a reflection of public outrage at corporate attempts to buy elections and influence politicians.

Even though the GOP will be much stronger in the 112th Congress than in the 111th, campaign finance reform advocates vow to resume the struggle for a disclosure-only bill, eliminating elements — such as a ban on spending by government contractors and bailout beneficiaries — that were deemed skewed toward labor unions.

We hope so. It is a travesty that the GOP opposes disclosure, when its leaders asserted for years that it was all the campaign finance reform the nation needed. And even though many tea party candidates got help from secret donors, they say they are for clean government not dominated by big vested interests. We’ll see.

The bottom-line case for disclosure: Secret money ought not dominate a presidential election.