“WASHINGTON — During their long campaign to loosen rules on campaign money, conservatives argued that there was a simpler way to prevent corruption: transparency. Get rid of limits on contributions and spending, they said, but make sure voters know where the money is coming from.
Today, with those fundraising restrictions largely removed, many conservatives have changed their tune. They now say disclosure could be an enemy of free speech.
High-profile donors could face bullying and harassment from liberals out to “muzzle” their opponents, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a recent speech.
Corporations could be subject to boycotts and pickets, warned the Wall Street Journal editorial page this spring.
Democrats “want to intimidate people into not giving to these conservative efforts,” said Republican strategist Karl Rove on Fox News. “I think it’s shameful.”
The Times’ story goes on to document a wide-ranging effort by conservative groups to undermine, dismantle and evade laws intended to force disclosure of who is giving how much money to who. They are also aggressively abusing a loophole in regulations that allow nonprofit groups to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in anonymous donations — under the guise that they are social-welfare organizations — and use that anonymous money to buy campaign ads.
The Federal Election Commission, which has the legal authority and even obligation to intervene, has been rendered incapable of doing so. In an all-too-familiar pattern, the commission’s three Republican members are blocking its three Democratic members from taking action to force disclosure that the law clearly requires. (See Van Hollen v. FEC).
As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the public and the media to “follow the money,” the traditional means to trace how big money in the political system produces favorable outcomes for those doing the giving.
The excuse for such secrecy is that large donors fear a backlash should their involvement become public. Poor little sensitive dears.
What do they think happens when John Q. Public writes a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, puts a campaign sign in his front yard or a bumper sticker on his car?
Why should they be exempt from disclosing contributions measured in the millions of dollars, while Jane Q. Public’s little $500 contribution to a candidate ends up in a FEC database accessible to her employer, her family and friends and everyone else with an Internet connection?
As one prominent jurist noted back in 2010:
“Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism.”
Of course, given that the jurist in question was Justice Antonin Scalia, he may be singing a different tune now, given the partisan turn this issue has taken.
– Jay Bookman