The Democratic leadership in the Senate faced a setback last week as Senate Republicans locked arms for a filibuster and defeated an attempt to achieve cloture of debate on the DISCLOSE Act and bring it up for a vote.
The DISCLOSE Act is a package of campaign finance reforms that includes prohibiting foreign entities from spending on American political campaigns, stopping certain contractors who get large sums of government money from lobbying, and requiring many groups to disclose their funding in campaign materials.
One particularly strident opponent of the DISCLOSE Act is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). The senator has repeatedly attacked the legislation as infringing upon the rights of average Americans:
- McConnell claimed the legislation is designed to “protect unpopular Democrat politicians by silencing their critics and exempting their campaign supporters from an all out attack on the First Amendment.” [7/26/10]
- On the Senate floor, he said the “the DISCLOSE Act is not about reform. It is nothing more than Democrats sitting behind closed doors with special interest lobbyists choosing which favored groups they want to speak in the 2010 elections … In other words, a bill to shield themselves from average Americans exercising their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech.” [7/27/10]
- On an interview on NPR, the senator mocked the bill, claiming it’s more about politics than policy. “You talk about transparency,” said McConnell. “This is a transparent effort to rig the fall election.” [7/27/10]
Yet as McConnell’s hometown paper, the Lexington-Herald Ledger, pointed out in its editorial yesterday, the Minority Leader wasn’t always against any attempt to force special interests to disclose their campaign financing. The paper recalls that the senator has a long history of co-sponsoring and championing legislation that would expand campaign finance disclosure:
- In 1987, McConnell lauded “post-Watergate disclosure laws” that help “flush out” politicians who “sacrifice duties or principles to get more money.”
- In 1989, McConnell teamed up with current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to introduce a bill that “would have required disclosure of independent groups or individuals who intended to spend more than $25,000 promoting or attacking a candidate.”
- In 1990, the senator promised to “introduce a bill that would require full disclosure of donors to multi-candidate political-action committees.”
- In 1996, while running for re-election, “McConnell supported public disclosure of all election-related spending, including spending by independent groups and contributions to political parties.”
- In 2007, in a “commentary published by the Herald-Leader, McConnell showed his belief in disclosure was not limited to campaign spending by defending an amendment to an ethics bill because it would require organizations filing complaints before the Senate Ethics Committee to disclose their donors so the public could have more transparency.”
The paper concludes, “Given McConnell’s 20-year devotion to the Holy Grail of disclosure, it [is] puzzling to hear him speak of it now as if it were the handiwork of Lucifer himself.”
Unfortunately, last-minute changes to the bill that allowed an exemption for “401C4 organizations with over 500,000 members,” — a category that includes special interest groups as diverse as the NRA, AARP, and Humane Society — significantly weakened much of the bill’s possible effectiveness. But as Public Citizen writes, “The exemption is troubling and disappointing but does not pose significant damage to the overall objectives of the bill.”
Yet it appears that McConnell is opposed to any sort of campaign finance disclosure, turning his back on a decades-long history of demanding it. Rather than opposing the DISCLOSE Act on policy grounds, it is likely that McConnell is likely doing what he always does — committing himself to opposing whatever the opposition party suggests.