Sunlight and darkness

    There’s an old saying in politics, borrowed from Justice Louis Brandeis, that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” – in other words, that citizens deserve to know what’s going on, that full disclosure is essential to the workings of a healthy democracy.Accordingly, Senate Democrats have been trying since 2010 to pass a full disclosure bill that would essentially require the rich fat cats and the shadowy special interest groups to come into the sunlight and identify themselves, so that we can find out who’s bankrolling our national elections. The high rollers have been unleashed by John Roberts and his fellow Republican brethren, courtesy of the Citizens United ruling, and they’re taking full advantage of tax code loopholes that allow them to donate huge secret sums. The least we can do is breach that secrecy. Who, after all, could possibly dispute the notion that we have the right to know the names of these donors?Take a wild guess who.Back in the summer of 2010, Senate Republicans, engaging as always in government-by-filibuster, prevented the DISCLOSE Act from even coming up for a vote – despite the fact that as many as 57 senators supported passage. And this year, a similar measure is up for Senate consideration (a vote is slated for next month), yet not a single Republican has signed on to co-sponsor this renewed plea for sunlight.Indeed, in a speech last Friday, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell attacked the sunlight bill. He contended that “government-compelled disclosure” threatens the “free speech” of those who wish to remain anonymous. He insisted that if the secret donors are forced to reveal themselves, they risk being exposed to “harassment and intimidation” – thereby curbing their free speech, or something like that.That’s basically the new Republican line. It’s very different from the old Republican line, as evidenced by the following examples. When it comes to tracking hypocrisy, these folks make it so easy.The selfsame Mitch McConnell in 2000: “Republicans are in favor of disclosure…The major political players in America (should disclose who they are). Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?” And McConnell in 1997: “Public disclosure of campaign contributions and spending should be expedited so that voters can judge for themselves what is appropriate.”Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2001: “The people have a right to know who is contributing t ads that are made in a political campaign.”Sen. John Cornyn in 2010: “I think the system needs more transparency, so people can reach their own conclusions.”Sen. Jeff Sessions in 2010: “I don’t like it when a large source of money is out there funding ads and is unaccountable.”House Republican leader John Boehner in 2007 (three years before he voted No on a House full disclosure bill): “We ought to have full disclosure, full disclosure of all the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think sunlight is the best disinfectant.”There it was again, that Brandeis quote. For many years, it appeared that Republicans really believed it. “Full disclosure” used to be their mantra, their proposed alternative to John McCain’s campaign finance reform. Instead of passing a new law that would curb big money in politics, they said, why not just let donors give as much as they want – and let the public know who was giving the money? That way, they said, voters could make informed judgments, because democracy thrives best in the sunlight.So why have the Republicans flip-flopped so blatantly, moving from sunlight mode to secrecy?That’s an easy one: Because circumstances have changed. Their former convictions have become inconvenient, thus they have been jettisoned. Post-Citizens United, Republicans are far outpacing the Democrats in secret donations, which is why McConnell and his colleagues now want to sustain the status quo. Crossroads GPS, one of the Karl Rove groups, has reportedly listed 23 unnamed donors who have given a minimum of $1 million apiece; the GOP certainly doesn’t want to blow their cover, or scare off future secretive fat cats, by passing a law that would expose them to the light.So instead, McConnell, in his Friday speech at a conservative think tank, trotted out a bogus argument in favor of secrecy, claiming that rich donors deserve privacy, lest they be exposed to public harassment – a concern that McConnell and his brethren clearly rejected back when they argued for full disclosure. More importantly, the Supreme Court has never bought the harassment claim; as Justice Scalia wrote in a 2010 case, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic coverage.” And even in Citizens United, the majority wrote favorably about the importance of full disclosure – which, in their view, helps citizens “make informed choices in the political marketplace,” and helps “in providing the electorate with information about the sources of election-related spending.”So there you have it: When it comes to indulging rich donors and powerful special interests, the Senate Republicans are more zealous than even the Roberts court. And barring a miracle return to their jettisoned convictions, they’ll block the new sunlight bill this summer and ensure that we all stay in the dark. I don’t like it when a large source of money is out there funding ads and is unaccountable. I’ve borrowed that sentence from the aforementioned Sen. Sessions. He may no longer believe the words that emanated from his own mouth, but I bet that most of us still do.   ——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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