With the political world descending into a prolonged, fiery argument over the capriciousness of the current campaign finance system, it's worth reflecting on how far the markers of the debate have shifted over time.
For years the Democratic and Republican Party were divided over the basic question of whether government could restrict the size or timeliness of political donations. Laws were passed doing just that, usually in the wake of various scandals. But it was usually done over the objections of ideological conservatives who view campaign contributions as the most elementary form of First Amendment expression.
What united the parties, largely, was the notion of transparency. Republican lawmakers never shied away from the argument that the identity of donors to political causes should be revealed. Disclosure, in fact, was hailed as the most effective antidote to a system that allowed unlimited contributions.
"I support campaign finance reform, but to me that means individual contributions, free speech and full disclosure," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) declared, back in 1999. "In other words, any individual can give whatever they want as long as it is disclosed every day on the Internet. Otherwise, you restrict free speech and favor super-rich candidates -- candidates with famous names, the media and special interest groups, all of whom can spend unlimited money."
In July 2000, Congress acted on that supposition. President Bill Clinton passed a law that "required" 527 groups "to notify the IRS" of their existence within 24 hours of launching and to reveal the names of donors who contribute $200 or more. Forty-eight of the 54 Republicans in the Senate voted for the measure.
In the years following, the GOP continued to push the idea that transparency was a strong disinfectant if not full substitute for campaign finance law. Former President George W. Bush, himself benefiting from outside group spending during the 2004 campaign, insisted that "there ought to be full disclosure" behind which groups were running ads.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, in an appearance on "Meet the Press" in February 2007, said that the political process "ought to have full disclosure, full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant."
And when the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision was handed down, allowing corporations to make unlimited expenditures on campaigns, Minority Whip Eric Cantor told Newsweek that he favored reform laws that "moves us back towards that notion of transparency and real-time reporting of donations and contributions."
The law that Democrats ultimately pushed did that. The DISCLOSE Act requires groups that spend on the political process to disclose their donors and put their names on the ads they run. It also went a bit further, forbidding exempted 501(c)(4) organizations from using corporate or labor dollars for political purposes. And in an effort to disarm the gun lobby's opposition, the law was amended to exempt large national organizations like the NRA (and other groups including the Sierra Club and AARP) from disclosure requirements.
The latter two provisions were enough of a hook for the GOP to oppose the measure en masse. And while the votes were still there to move the legislation through the House, Democrats fell one member shy in the Senate.
"We went from 48 out of 54 Republican Senators to zero," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. "There are other provisions in the Disclose Act which people have hung their hat on as a reason for opposing it. But it is my view that Senator McConnell's main internal argument against this was the absence of disclosure will benefit us politically in the 2010 elections and no one should do anything to disturb our chances... I think the opposition here flowed from hard partisan politics. There is no other rationale."
Republicans, undoubtedly, have been the beneficiaries of a rising tide of anonymous conservative donors. And with the likely seating of more GOP members in November, the chances of the DISCLOSE Act's passage grow ever more remote (though, by then, Congress will be removed from the election season and may be more open to passing such a measure). On Tuesday, the Washington Post editorialized about the void in campaign finance law. And buried towards the end of the piece was a solution to the impasse that, again, echoes the long-standing GOP belief in the efficacy of disclosure
"The problem of this secret spending -- and the solution to it -- lies in the tax code and its enforcement," the paper wrote. "Nonprofit advocacy groups, known as 501(c)(4)s, are permitted to engage in political advocacy as long as that is not their primary purpose. Meanwhile, these groups do not have to reveal the identities of their donors. IRS regulations bar such organizations from "direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office," but as a practical matter, these limits have not made much difference. One such Republican-leaning group, American Crossroads GPS, has touted its ability to keep donor names confidential even as it runs ads in key races. Similarly, trade associations such as the Chamber of Commerce, organized under section 501(c)(6) of the tax code, are not required to disclose donors and are permitted even greater leeway to engage in political activity."
This post has been updated from an earlier version