‘Wha Happened’ to DISCLOSE Act? Only the Shadowy know!

Previously I suggested that the DISCLOSE Act was doomed by a variety of almost entirely self-inflicted wounds by so-called campaign finance “reformers” (although we at CCP like to think we had a major role in this process too, by among other things pointing out the nature of these wounds to the public and Members of Congress and their staff with our analysis and commentary).

Drawing upon the immortal catch-phrase of ‘Mike Lafontiaine’ from A Mighty Wind to explain ‘Wha Happened?’ to DISCLOSE, I wrote that among the disastrous decisions by “reformers” was the near-exclusive rhetorical focus on corporate spending freed up by Citizens United which the DISCLOSE Act was intended to counter, while at the same time attempting to pitch to Republicans in Congress that the bill treated both corporations and unions the same:

Even if DISCLOSE had treated business corporations and unions the same – and it plainly did not, unless you believe banning the political speech of half of the largest companies in America without banning speech by a single union somehow constitutes “identical” treatment – the case for DISCLOSE was offered in such a way that few could conclude anything other than that the bill was primarily aimed at business corporations, and that union political spending would be left untouched.

So by focusing on political spending by business corporations and ignoring unions in their rhetoric, “reformers” ensured that those Republican Representatives and Senators who might otherwise be sympathetic to a bill like DISCLOSE would see it instead simply as an ideological and partisan effort to silence voices that the Democratic Congressional leadership found inconvenient to their election hopes.

Today I’ll note another stunningly inept decision made by self-styled “reformers” in their rhetoric, which is their use of terms like “shadowy,” “anonymous,” and “front group” to describe pretty much any group that might chose to speak out in politics, without regards for whether the organization was a relatively new entity with uncertain interests or a long-established organization with which most Americans are familiar with and have a pretty clear understanding of their interests and motivations.

Consider a joint letter in June by Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Public Citizen, and the League of Women Voters. After citing editorials in the Washington Post and New York Times that refer to “shadowy political players” and “political front groups,” the groups go on to cite the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as the very first group they believe to be in urgent need of “disclosure.”

If the DISCLOSE Act is not enacted, voters will not know the identity of the corporate donors that are funding the Chamber of Commerce’s reported $50 million campaign to influence the 2010 congressional elections, and the amounts those corporate donors are giving.

In a stronger statement, the liberal blog ThinkProgress (yes, the same ThinkProgress that ginned up the phony story about foreign money being used by the U.S. Chamber to fund political ads) http://ifs.org/blog/detail/thinkprogress-clings-to-conspiracy-theory-on-us-chamber-foreign-money had the following post by Lee Fang (who is apparently in charge of fabricating scandals for ThinkProgress):

Secretive Right-Wing Plutocrats Use Front Groups To Attack New Campaign Finance Disclosure Bill

… The DISCLOSE Act is a tremendous start at addressing this crisis of open democracy. But predictably, secretive right-wing power brokers are pushing back. As soon as Van Hollen’s bill was introduced, front groups funded by the most elusive conservative elite fired back…

U.S. Chamber of Commerce: The DISCLOSE Act “stifles free speech.” Chamber President Tom Donohue quickly issued a statement condemning the bill as an attempt to “silence constitutionally protected speech and abridge First Amendment rights.” Donohue may feel threatened because the DISCLOSE Act undermines the very purpose of the Chamber: to attack progressive reforms while concealing the corporate money behind those attacks. For instance, the Chamber is running millions of dollars of ads against Wall Street reform, but the ads only say they are paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce…

CCP is also accused by Fang of being a “front group” for Howie Rich, a bizarre claim unsubstantiated by any fact that I know of (and as President of CCP, I think I’d know). Also getting charged with being “secretive” is the Cato Institute.

Another group singled out directly for criticism was Americans for Prosperity, leveled by President Obama himself:

Right now all around this country there are groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, who are running millions of dollars of ads against Democratic candidates all across the country.  And they don’t have to say who exactly the Americans for Prosperity are.  You don’t know if it’s a foreign-controlled corporation.  You don’t know if it’s a big oil company, or a big bank.  You don’t know if it’s a insurance company that wants to see some of the provisions in health reform repealed because it’s good for their bottom line, even if it’s not good for the American people.

A Supreme Court decision allowed this to happen.  And we tried to fix it, just by saying disclose what’s going on, and making sure that foreign companies can’t influence our elections. Seemed pretty straightforward.  The other side said no.

They don’t want you to know who the Americans for Prosperity are, because they’re thinking about the next election.  But we’ve got to think about future generations.  We’ve got to make sure that we’re fighting for reform.  We’ve got to make sure that we don’t have a corporate takeover of our democracy.

The problem for “reformers” in pursuing this line of attack was that many of the “secretive,” “shadowy,” “anonymous,” and “front group” organizations that were targeted in their rhetoric hardly qualify as such under any meaningful definition of the term. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which aside from two groups affiliated with Karl Rove has been perhaps the most vilified entity in the country based on their alleged status as a “shadowy” group, is an organization that most Americans recognize and understand exactly what their membership’s interests are.

Likewise, the Cato Institute has been around for more than 30 years and is widely recognized by just about anybody paying attention to politics and public policy to be the leading institutional voice of libertarianism in America. In a bit of irony that no doubt failed to attract Fang’s attention, Cato is a 501(c)3 think tank, just like the Center for American Progress that runs ThinkProgress, employs Fang, and declines to reveal its donors.

As for Americans for Prosperity, the group is 7 years old and was created as a result of a much older group, Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), splitting apart several years ago. CSE was founded in 1984. With a 25+ year pedigree and leadership over time that included former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, White House Legal Counsel for President Bush (’41) C. Boyden Gray, and top-level Reagan Administration official Jim Miller, it should not be terribly difficult to figure out just who Americans for Prosperity and its predecessor organization is and was, and what view they represent.

Just as “reformers” made a significant rhetorical mistake in aiming their rhetoric almost exclusively at business corporations while trying to convince skeptical Republicans that the DISCLOSE Act treated business corporations and unions the same, the decision to use widely recognized or easily identified entities as examples of “secretive” groups simply served to illustrate the point that the bill massively over-reached, lumping respected and longstanding organizations in with entities that might reasonably be considered by some to be “shadow groups.”

This massive overreach, of course, was simply more evidence that the intent of the DISCLOSE Act was not, in fact, to reveal the backers of “shadowy” groups that the public would otherwise have no idea about their interests, supporters, and perspective. Had that been the goal, groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity would not have been part of the discussion and instead the “reformers” would have focused their rhetorical fire on groups that in previous elections had sprung up a few months before the election, run ads, and then disappeared.

Building support among the public for “reform” has always been a challenge for the professional campaign finance “reform” community, as opinion polls almost always show the issue at or near the bottom in terms of priorities for the public. Trying to build support for the DISCLOSE Act by basing your argument on the idea that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents some shadowy, exotic, unknown entity with interests and motivations undiscernible to the public without disclosure of their membership and donor roster was doomed from the start because the charge fails the laugh test with most Americans, who know exactly who and what the Chamber is and what their agenda is.

The apparent true aim of the bill, to harass and intimidate organizations like the U.S. Chamber that those writing the legislation felt would endanger their election chances by speaking out, was thus exposed, making it easier for Republicans to oppose the bill while much of the public simply tuned out an obviously silly argument from the “reformers.”

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.