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Times Union editorial
U.S. Senate Republicans block a disclosure bill for big campaign donors.
How is democracy served by anonymous political influence?
For a moment this week, the U.S. Senate had a chance to do something that most Americans would agree it should do: require disclosure by the big political donors who are increasingly dominating political discourse in America. Not limit their spending, not stifle their voices. Just say who they are.
Instead, on Monday, Senate Republicans used a filibuster to block the DISCLOSE Act. The bill needed 60 votes to advance, but received only 51, with all Republicans present, even the supposed advocates of disclosure, voting against it, and all the Democrats voting for it.
And so we’re left with a twisted system that requires the disclosure of the names of ordinary citizens who write, say, a $200 check to the candidate of their choice, but shields the identity of someone who gives millions to a trade group or nonprofit that in turn saturates the airwaves with ads to attack or bolster a candidate.
It’s as though we have two political systems — one designed to ensure that we at least know where the money that’s used to influence our democratic process is coming from, and another that allows anyone who wants to get around that system to do so.
The defeat of the DISCLOSE Act comes, ironically, as a flood of new financial disclosures is coming from campaigns, allowing citizens a glimpse of how much money is used to influence their votes. But it’s a partial glimpse, at best, and the loopholes make a mockery of it.
This, surely, is not how even a conservative Supreme Court expected it to be. In the landmark Citizens United decision two years ago, in which it opened the door to what’s become a flood of corporate money in the name of free speech, the high court stressed that disclosure was essential to our political process.
The DISCLOSE Act would have been a step in that direction — requiring disclosure of donors of more than $10,000 to trade groups, unions, and nonprofits that operate under a thin veneer of social causes. Well-heeled donors and corporations that don’t want their fingerprints on political ads can launder money through these organizations. The bill also would have required rapid disclosure of such donations, and prohibited political spending by certain government contractors, by firms involved in federal deals for off-shore drilling, and by financial institutions using public bailout funds. It would have better kept foreign influence out of political campaigns.
A pretty wholesome-sounding bill, and a seemingly popular one, too. After all, large majorities of Americans agree that big money is corrupting politics. More than two-thirds of respondents in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, for example, said super PACs, those “independent” committees that have already raised more than $280 million to influence elections this year, ought to be outlawed.
We’ve made no secret of our position that our political system needs deep reform, especially at the state level, but the federal system also needs lower limits on contributions, closure of loopholes, better rules against personal use of campaign funds, and public financing of campaigns.
But at the very least, if that’s not going to happen — if all this money is going to be allowed to flow into campaigns — then citizens should be able to know where it comes from and where it goes. The system, laid bare, would likely make its own case for reform.