In just a couple of hours, the Senate is poised to take up the Disclose Act (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections), which isn't expected to do very well. Before Republicans kill it, though, it's worth pausing to appreciate how modest the proposal really is. (Update: The bill died this afternoon. It had a 51-vote majority, but it wasn't enough to break the GOP filibuster. Zero Republicans were willing to give the bill an up-or-down vote.)
The Washington Post's editorial board, which isn't exactly liberal, ran a good piece over the weekend.
For many years since [the Watergate scandal], Republicans and Democrats broadly supported the idea of full disclosure.
That consensus has broken down and thrown the country back to the unruly days before Watergate. We seem to have created the political equivalent of secret Swiss bank accounts. The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision opened the door to unlimited donations by corporations, wealthy individuals and labor unions. The sheer size of the donations flowing into groups sponsoring political advertising is alarming enough. But the secrecy is also corrosive for democracy. Who is writing checks for $10 million or $1 million at a single throw, and what do they want? We don't know, and this shadowy bazaar undermines our political system.
Until recently, Republicans supported full disclosure. Now that the tide of money is running in their favor, they don't. Their rationale is that exposure might squelch the constitutional rights of donors. In fact, the court has upheld the constitutionality of disclosure. The Disclosure Act is a reasonable bill that would, among other things, require identification of donors of $10,000 or more to certain organizations that spend money on political campaigns.
Update: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the floor this afternoon, "If this flood of outside money continues, the day after the election, 17 angry old white men will wake up and realize they just bought the country. That's a sad commentary. About 60 percent, or more, of these outside dollars [contributing $10,000 or more] are coming from these 17 people."
Firm vote-counts aren't available, but it appears the bill has zero Republican supporters. Since the GOP minority will, of course, require a 60-vote supermajority to even begin a discussion of the proposal, there's no realistic chance of success.
What about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who once positioned himself as a champion of campaign-finance reform? Democrats tried repeatedly to get his support for the Disclose Act, but the most recent reports suggest he will stick with his party in killing the bill.
Regardless, we can add this to the list of ideas Republican used to support -- Dream Act, cap and trade, individual healthcare mandate, economic stimulus, etc. -- until Democrats agreed with them, at which point the GOP decided to oppose the very principles they espoused.
The L.A. Times also recently had a good piece on the conservatives who said disclosure would prevent corruption, but who are now saying disclosure is too high a price.
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.
It's worth noting that even if there were a few Republicans who'd consider the proposal, the National Rifle Association announced it would "score" the vote -- a move that always gets quite a bit of attention on Capitol Hill.
It's a stretch to say this one bill would be huge step towards correcting the ridiculous campaign-finance system, but at a certain level, that's the point -- if Republicans won't even consider modest, incremental reforms, more meaningful improvements aren't even worth dreaming about.