Republican Senators were unanimous yesterday in their refusal to allow their version of H.R. 5175, the so-called "DISCLOSE" Act, to come to a vote. That means someone has crafted campaign-finance legislation that even Sen. McCain opposes. This bill would have required more transparency from campaign donors and political ad purchasers, with special responsibilities, it seems, imposed on corporations and restrictions imposed on corporations with government contracts or receiving TARP assistance. The Democrats had found an unlikely ally in the National Rifle Association after including language exempting public-advocacy groups like the NRA from the bill's requirements. Some conservative commentators accused the NRA of selling them out, and such comments, along with others, further the impression that Republicans believe that "DISCLOSE" would particularly handicap them. In their own rhetoric, Republicans claim that this bill, like all campaign-finance legislation, will only benefit incumbents at the expense of insurgents. Since every Republican Senator who opposes the bill is an incumbent, you might ask why they're complaining. The answer is that they expect corporate donations to benefit the Republican party disproportionately, but feel that the advantage they'd get from the donations will be reduced if more people know who's paying for their campaigns.
It's interesting that politicians are debating the propriety or fairness of obligatory disclosure at the same time that other people are debating the propriety of anonymity in public discourse, particularly on the internet. Many people are concerned about the way anonymity allegedly encourages irresponsible conduct online, from trolling to cyberbullying. From their perspective, anonymity obstructs accountability. I can't fully agree with this position, since I don't blog under my real name. There's an argument in favor of anonymity (or more correctly the use of pseudonyms) in political or any other kind of polemical discourse, which is that anonymity immunizes your argument from ad hominem attack. Your argument, ideally, will stand of fall on its own merits as long as someone can't say, "You only make that argument because you are a so-and-so." Republicans are making a similar argument, to an extent, against DISCLOSE, or at least they accept the premise that disclosure would serve, fairly or not, to discredit the arguments of corporate-subsidized advertisers. They want a contest of ideas without having the motives or interests of one side questioned just because of who they are or who gives money to them. But it's still profoundly debatable, the Supreme Court notwithstanding, whether paying for ads is equivalent to posting on a blog or publishing a Federalist Paper, and whether the campaign donor is entitled to the same anonymity or immunity as the author of a controversial opinion. We wouldn't let someone run for office under a false name, I assume, and our entitlement to full disclosure about anyone running for office should extend to everyone who subsidizes him. If it makes Republicans feel better, the same rules of disclosure ought to apply to any person or group who wants to donate to a campaign, whether it's a billionaire, a labor union, the NRA or the NAACP. If the GOP wants to make their stand on the inconsistency of the DISCLOSE bill, I can't really blame them. But on the principle of disclosure, they're wrong.
Some observers think this could come back to bite Republicans this fall. They cite polls showing high public distrust of corporations and strong suspicion that they play too great and influential a role in politics. Democrats stand ready to accuse Republicans of preventing corporations from receiving the proper degree of scrutiny during political campaigns. The Republicans are ready in their own right to cry hypocrisy or unfairness or bias, but if the point of all that crying is to deny the validity of the idea of disclosure, they may still end up on the wrong side of the argument. Whether this issue on its own will make a real difference is hard to say. Conditions remain volatile and any number of developments could make the elections turn out far different from what's now expected. But full disclosure of every politician's stand on this particular issue is a reasonable demand.