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Adding Pathetic to Puny: On Why We're Joining Others to Oppose the DISCLOSE Act

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UPDATE: The minimum number of dues-paying members needed for exemption from transparency requirements in this Act has been reduced from 1,000,000 to 500,000.

The vast majority of Americans -- both Democrats and Republicans -- considered the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United to be a colossal blunder. Whether or not the First Amendment compelled it (and IMHO, it didn't), as Justice Stevens rightly said in dissent, Americans don't believe that our politics needs more corporate influence. To the contrary, most believe it needs less. As we learn more about the blunders in mis-regulation bought by Wall Street billionaires, and as we watch black clouds of oil billowing from an offshore oil rig, never adequately inspected or monitored because regulators were "persuaded" by well (as in oil-well) funded lawmakers to turn a regulatory blind eye, who could think that this system needs more of the same? Who could believe that this system was working?

So some of us -- call us the perpetually naïve -- hoped that Citizens United might actually inspire the Democrats and this President to return to the promises that Barack "change the way Washington works" Obama made two years ago -- "to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way." "For far too long," Obama told us, "through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans." "And if we're not willing to take up that fight," i.e., the fight to change the way Washington works, "then real change -- change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans -- will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo." "The reason I am running," Obama told us, to convince us there was a reason why he, as opposed to the status-quo-focused Clinton, should be our nominee, "is to challenge that system."

But the perpetually naïve were then deeply disappointed by the puny response to Citizens United that the House Democrats and the Administration came up with. The DISCLOSE Act no doubt has good ideas in it. No doubt, things would be better -- a little, on the margin -- if it passed, and if it survived hostile Supreme Court review. But the idea that this is the response to perhaps the most significant change in the economy of campaign influence in a century just hurt. Here was a chance for the Democrats to rally a nation to real reform. Here was a chance, squandered.

But now comes the "pathetic" that gets added to this "puny." The House Democrats have now agreed to a critical exemption from the reach of the DISCLOSE Act. Any 501(c)(4) group which has been around for more than 10 years, and which has more than 1,000,000 dues paying members, some in each state, and derives no more than 15% of its budget from corporate or union funding, is to be exempted from the transparency requirements of the Disclose Act.

Which groups will get the benefit of this carve out? Only one of prominence that would actually need or use the exemption: the NRA.

This is a compromise too far for us at Change Congress. So today we have joined scores of other groups to oppose this puny bill. This is not reform. It is politics as usual called reform. And reformers who believed in the candidate who promised to "change the way Washington works" are not going to sign up merely because the President would sign the bill.

Thirty years ago, a Republican taught the world that it was big, not puny, ideas that changed things. Two years ago, many of us thought that at least some Democrats had finally learned Reagan's lesson. Obama and Edwards both were talking about a fundamental change in the way Washington worked. Their ideas excited a new generation to the party.

But apparently small ideas are back in style -- incremental change only, especially in the context of electoral reform. And why is that? Has the history of tinkering that defines the campaign reform movement actually gotten us anything of value? Will the DISCLOSE Act, with its NRA carve-out, really rally the base to this "party of reform"?

Pathetic and puny victories are defeats, not victories. And they are certainly not the sort of resolve that will convince anyone that "change" has come to Washington. Not even those who thought they were already convinced.