Why are ‘reformers’ making donor secrecy a priority?

Jeanne Cummings of Politico has a very interesting article this morning reporting on the creation by prominent Democratic operatives of groups intended to counter Republican-friendly organizations like American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS:

Democrats with ties to the Obama White House on Friday are launching a two-pronged fundraising effort aimed at countering deep-pocketed GOP groups in 2012 – and adopting some of the same policies on unlimited, secret donations that President Barack Obama himself has long opposed, the organizers tell POLITICO.

The two groups, Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action, aim to raise $100 million to defend Obama’s re-election from an expected onslaught of attack ads from similar Republican outside money organizations activated in the 2010 midterms, organizers say.

The Priorities companion committees will have one that discloses donors – and one that doesn’t, a practice Obama hammered during last year’s election cycle as undermining the democratic process.

The Priorities group also is jettisoning an Obama rule aimed at limiting the influence of special interests by welcoming unlimited contributions from lobbyists, labor unions, corporations, and political action committees – sources that are still banned from giving to the president’s re-election campaign, organizers said.

“While we agree that fundamental campaign finance reforms are needed, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers cannot live by one set of rules as our values and our candidates are overrun with their hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Bill Burton, a former White House spokesman and co-founder of the organization.

“We will follow the rules as the Supreme Court has laid them out, but the days of a double standard are over,” he added.

There is nothing particularly hypocritical about the Democrats decision to create independent organizations that are able to accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions, and corporations, taking full advantage of the First Amendment rights recognized in Citizens United (and SpeechNow.org too), even after bashing that decision and doing everything in their power to overturn, undermine, and limit that decision.

Creating the Priorities groups is simply a recognition by Democrats of what the rules are, and deciding not to unilaterally disarm. Standing on the sideline while your opponents spend hundreds of millions of dollars, legally, on ads criticizing your own candidates and boosting opposing candidates, isn’t a particularly smart move. The decision to join the battle is a wise one, not necessarily hypocritcal.

But I am curious about the decision not to release donor names to Priorities USA, which will be a 501(c)4 organization, the same as Crossroads GPS.

Since Citizens United was released and the DISCLOSE Act first began to be pushed, there has been an almost nonstop drumbeat from various Democratic politicians about the danger to the Republic of allowing social welfare organizations to speak out on behalf of their members and donors without being forced to reveal who those members and donors are. According to the rhetoric, it is only nefarious evildoers hiding their wrongdoing from the public that seek such anonymity.

Speaking at a fundraiser for then-candidate for U.S. Senate Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut, President Obama said the following:

…right now, all across the country, special interests are planning and running millions of dollars of attack ads against Democratic candidates. Because last year, there was a Supreme Court decision called Citizens United. They’re allowed to spend as much as they want without ever revealing who’s paying for the ads. That’s exactly what they’re doing. Millions of dollars. And the groups are benign-sounding: Americans for Prosperity. Who’s against that? Or Committee for Truth in Politics. Or Americans for Apple Pie. Moms for Motherhood…

 None of them will disclose who’s paying for these ads. You don’t know if it’s a Wall Street bank. You don’t know if it’s a big oil company. You don’t know if it’s an insurance company. You don’t even know if it’s a foreign-controlled entity… It is the most insidious power grab since the monopolies of the Gilded Age.

We tried to fix this, but the leaders of the other party wouldn’t even allow it to come up for a vote. They want to keep the public in the dark…

A little later in Maryland, President Obama again opined on what he saw as insufficient disclosure:

“We learned that one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations,” Obama said, without mentioning the Chamber, often a fierce critic of his administration, by name.

“So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections, and they won’t tell you where the money for their ads come from,” Obama charged before a crowd estimated at 4,000 people, mostly students…

“This is a threat to our democracy. The American people deserve to know who’s trying to sway their elections.”

And Congressman Chris Van Hollen, primary sponsor of the House version of the DISCLOSE Act, was more blunt in his assessment of why private organizations didn’t need to keep their membership and donor lists private:

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

And not to be outdone in fulminating against privacy, Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer earlier this week ranted against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s opposition to President Obama’s proposed executive order concerning government contractors:

…Chamber of Commerce lobbyist R. Bruce Josten is quoted as saying that an Executive Order being considered by the White House to require government contractors to disclose their campaign finance activities “is meant to have a chilling effect.”

According to the article, “Mr. Josten said that the order as drafted would stifle free speech rights for businesses that worked with the government by subjecting them to harassment and protests if their political spending was disclosed.”

…The Josten attack represents a continuation of efforts by the Chamber of Commerce that began in the last Congress with their opposition to the DISCLOSE Act in order to keep secret from the American people the sources of corporate funds being spent to influence federal elections.

Mr. Josten’s absurd position takes an “Alice-in-Wonderland” approach to transparency, a fundamental principle of our democracy and democracies all over the world.

The comments by Mr. Josten represent just one more round of red herring arguments being made by the Chamber of Commerce in order to keep secret from the American people the sources of the tens of millions of dollars the Chamber is spending to influence federal elections…

Transparency is universally viewed by democracies as an essential means to ensure that citizens are informed about the actions of their governments and as a key to preventing government corruption…

The Supreme Court by an 8 to 1 majority in the Citizens United case supported campaign finance disclosure and flat-out rejected the kind of claims raised by Mr. Josten that disclosure stifles free speech and is meant to have a chilling effect…

Needless to say, these are views that we at the Center for Competitive Politics do not share. But, from the ‘reform’ perspective, it’s pretty clear that they do not see any legitimate reason at all for an organization that engages in some political speech as part of their larger mission to not reveal its donors.

So then, why exactly are advocates of increased disclosure not willing to disclose the donors to Priorities USA, the 501(c)4 organization being formed to support Democrats? If, as Congressman Van Hollen asserts, “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” then what possible rationale could the ‘reformers’ at Priorities USA have for not revealing their donors?

Perhaps they have learned what we in the First Amendment camp have long known, that there are a number of reasonable and entirely legitimate reasons why someone might not want to have their personal political views and activities broadcast to the world, and recognize that forced disclosure would limit the willingness of citizens, corporations, and unions to contribute, thereby limiting their funding. In other words, chill free speech.

It would be an interesting question for a reporter to ask, I think.

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