Disclose, disclose, disclose

Our view: The Republican mantra of the past seems forgotten as Van Hollen campaign finance reform measure faces uncertain prospects in the Senate

June 28, 2010

Here's a stumper for your next current events quiz: Top leaders from what political party called for "full disclosure" of campaign contributions and expenditures as a "helpful move towards restoring confidence of voters"?

Anyone who observed last week's 219-206 vote in favor of just such reforms might have assumed it was the Democrats, as members of that party cast all by two of the yea votes. But not so fast. The above phrases were lifted from the remarks made by House Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor. The two men have long endorsed disclosure with great fervor, the latter going so far as to say just five months ago that "anything that moves us back towards the notion of transparency" was helpful to restoring voter confidence.

Perhaps the House-approved bill doesn't qualify as "anything," but the more likely explanation is that Republicans preferred disclosure only in the face of outright limits on corporate spending. Now that the Supreme Court has taken that off the table with the Citizens United ruling, the GOP has suddenly lost interest in what Mr. Boehner three years ago described as the "best disinfectant."

The Disclose Act, which was spearheaded by Maryland Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., is far from ideal in its current form. To muster enough support for passage, the Democrats added a loophole to exempt large advocacy organizations, including the National Rifle Association.

That may have weakened the measure, but it was the best that could be hoped for under the circumstances, particularly with Republicans siding so closely with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce crowd. Perhaps there simply aren't a lot of CEO's of political lobbying groups who want to appear in their own attack ads, as the bill requires.

What makes the measure important is that it requires the top donors behind a political ad to be revealed the same way that candidate ads are credited. That's not a limit on free speech, only a truth-in-advertising requirement.

The law would also limit campaign spending by major government contractors and foreign controlled companies, both common-sense practices.

The Senate needs to take up the proposal as soon as possible so that it can be applied to this year's political campaigns. But that will require sponsor Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York to come up with at least one GOP vote (and probably more) to avoid a filibuster.

It's hard to believe the public finds the minority party's objections to what is essentially a good government bill endorsed by the League of Women Voters to be particularly convincing. After all, too many of their most respected members have touted disclosure in the past. (Paging Sen. John McCain of Arizona…) The question is only whether Republicans in the U.S. Senate will stand by their principles when there is so much undisclosed money on the table.

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