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DISCLOSE act obituaries are premature

Congressional
leaders should bring a slimmed down version of DISCLOSE during the lame duck
session – a version focused on the core disclosure provisions. Those provisions
will ensure that the public knows who is funding these shadow organizations
that in some instances seem to be operating as shadow political party
committees – albeit without contribution or disclosure limits.  In many
instances seasoned political operatives – with years of experience with the
Republican and Democratic party committees or as trusted advisors to past
Presidents – are organizing this money and channeling it to the races where it
can have the most impact. 

Without
new legislation, anonymous funders will continue to take advantage of gaps in
current laws that were never intended to cover the funds allowed by the Citizens
United
decision. 
The Tea Party phenomenon notwithstanding, some well-known, traditional powers
are using these gaps to enhance their already formidable political power. 
Not surprisingly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the bastion of the Republican
Establishment, is leading the way. 

The
Chamber is especially attractive because it offers businesses an alternative to
getting beat up in public for political expenditures to elect controversial
politicians.  That’s what happened to Target recently when it was learned
the company gave money to support a right-wing candidate in Minnesota. 
That public relations nightmare for Target erupted over $150,000.  The
Chamber meanwhile has committed to laundering $75 million dollars in political
expenditures for its members before Election Day in an effort to elect
candidates favorable to big business. 

The
Chamber is offering massive corporations the chance to have their cake and eat
it too.  Using legal loopholes, they are providing businesses a way to
give money to business-friendly candidates and causes without any public
exposure whatsoever. 

 Here’s how
it currently works, as described in The Washington Monthly
– including a refreshingly frank
boast by Chamber President Tom Donahue:

 

            “[A]
large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover. For
multibillion-dollar insurers, drug makers, and medical device manufacturers who
are too smart and image conscious to make public attacks of their own, the
Chamber of Commerce is a friend who will do the dirty work. “I want to give
them all the deniability they need
,” says Donohue. That deniability is
evidently worth a lot. According to a January article in the National Journal,
six insurers alone—Aetna, Cigna, Humana, Kaiser Foundation Health Plans,
UnitedHealth Group, and Wellpoint—pumped up to $20 million into the Chamber
last year.”

 

The
Chamber however is hardly alone. Other groups with patriotic-sounding names and
tax designations to avoid disclosure have sprung up under the leadership of
longtime political party operatives.  Labor unions are struggling to
compete with the treasury funds of big business, but are using their own
significant but more limited resources.  Unions have also been perfectly
willing to hide their involvement with independent expenditures groups when
they thought it to their advantage. 

Who
knows if they are keeping up, since current laws weren’t structured to deal
with this new lay of the land?

The
latest one-vote loss to break a Republican filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act need
not be the end of this effort to provide the transparency the Supreme Court
itself supported in its Citizens
United decision.  The provisions to require
disclosure of corporate and union treasury funds spent to affect federal
elections are critically important and go to the heart of our democratic
process.  Senators should face a vote in the lame duck on a revised
version which focuses solely on disclosure and drops provisions which have been
mischaracterized and exploited by the bill’s opponents, such as the language to
put new restrictions on government contractors.  It will be that much
harder for politicians to vote against a bill that asks for nothing more than
the identities of those funneling big money to elect or unseat Members of
Congress.   The endless attack ads of election season will still be
fresh in the minds of Americans when their elected representatives will be
asked to vote on whether those paying to run the ads should have to own up to
them.  It seems a simple question and it is a roll call vote that voters
will remember.

 

Meredith
McGehee is the policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and has advocated
for campaign finance reforms for more than twenty years. She also heads McGehee
Strategies, a public interest consulting business.

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