Full Disclosure: Praise For Fred Hiatt

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Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt has come in for his share of criticism over here at TNR, so it’s only fair to note when he hits one right on the mark, as he did with his latest column, on what is emerging as one of the top stories of the 2012 campaign: the demise of disclosure. Not so long ago, conservatives arguing against campaign finance contribution limits offered a deal that was, Hiatt notes, rather seductive: let everyone give whatever they want, but put it all out on the table. No confusing rules, no fine print: you can spend what you want, but we’ll disclose every bit of it. If money is speech, as the Supreme Court believes, then it only makes sense that we should know who the speakers are. 

Well, that was then. This is now: 

The Republicans, apparently, never meant it. Now that they have Unlimited Donations, or something pretty close, they don’t want Unlimited Disclosure after all. They want unlimited contributions, in secret.

“Republicans are in favor of disclosure,” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in 2000 on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” making clear he was including issue advocacy campaign ads with a thin veil of policy as well as candidate spending. “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”

“I think what we ought to do is we ought to have full disclosure, full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent,” Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), now House speaker, said on the same show in 2007 . “And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

“I don’t like it when a large source of money is out there funding ads and is unaccountable,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said in 2010. “To the extent we can, I tend to favor disclosure.”

Yet now, with more secret money than ever slopping into the system, not a single Republican has signed on to bills that would provide the disinfectant Mr. Boehner claimed to favor.

What’s changed?

Sadly, only one thing, and it’s not the merits of the argument. The playing field has tilted toward Republicans, and they’re in no hurry to tilt it back. A combination of Supreme Court jurisprudence and lax enforcement from the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service has allowed groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS (and Bill Burton’s pro-Obama Priorities USA) to take million-dollar donations, or 10-million-dollar donations, use them in political ads and never disclose the donors.

It allows the Chamber of Commerce to run ads opposing a candidate for supporting Obamacare, say, and never disclose that the funding for the ad comes entirely (we’re speaking hypothetically now) from a single health-insurance company. Can that be in the public interest?

Actually, that last example wasn’t so hypothetical at all: it emerged during the battle over Obamacare that the health insurance lobby had funneled a $100 million contribution through the Chamber with the express purpose of running last-minute ads against the legislation. The Chamber is now so determined to keep its donors secret that it is considering switching its political spending to a different category should federal regulators wake from their slumber and force groups like the Chamber to offer more disclosure; if that happens, the Chamber will switch to "independent expenditures" on behalf of candidates that will force it to make its support for candidates more explicit, something it has until now avoided doing, but will at least allow it to keep its corporate donors secret. As the Post’s Dan Eggen reported over the weekend, it is all leading to circumstances very similar to what prevailed in the days of Watergate, with bagmen carrying piles of secret money to Nixon’s henchmen. And as I’ve noted before, the problem is not just that the source of the money is publicly secret, it is that it is privately very much not secret word will get back to the powers that be, on Capitol Hill and, presumably, a Romney White House, about who gave and who did not give when the call came from Crossroads or the Chamber. Those who are hit up for money know this, and have to worry about whether they will be at a disadvantage in future intra-industry fights, if their competitor gives and they don’t. If it starts to look like a shakedown, that’s because it is.

One point Hiatt could have added, but that his page has done a good job of highlighting: it’s not just the donors to these “social welfare” 501(c)4s that are undisclosed, it is also the bundlers for Romney’s regular campaign fundraising. Barack Obama has released the names of his bundlers, as John McCain and George W. Bush did. Only Romney has not. Nor has there been much of an outcry for him to. Why worry about secret bundlers when there are WaWa visits and veepstakes to write about?

*Addendum: For more on the plutocratic paranoia that is partly driving the non-disclosure movement, see Michael Tomasky’s latest.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis

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