Jonathan Chait

Remembering When Conservatives Loved Campaign Finance Disclosure

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In case you missed Norman Ornstein's piece on campaign finance reform this weekend, it's extremely good. Ornstein points out that Republicans and conservatives used to passionately advocate tougher disclosure requirements:

When a divided Supreme Court issued its highly controversial Citizens United decision allowing corporations free rein to use their dollars to intervene in elections, there was one seemingly shining light, an area where broad consensus existed and that was endorsed by eight of the nine justices: the value of disclosure. The Court stated in the decision, “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are “‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.” The author of the Citizens United decision, Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the Court, underscored the point: “The First Amendment protects political speech and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

At last, a venue for common ground! After all, even opponents of campaign reform had long emphasized their deep fealty to disclosure. In March of 2000, a Wall Street Journal editorial said, “Our view is that the Constitution allows consenting adults to give as much as they want to whomever they want, subject to disclosure on the Internet.” That same year, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell asked, “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?” As recently as 2007, John Boehner said on “Meet the Press,” “I think what we ought to do is 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.” And the public resoundingly agrees: In an October 2010 CBS/New York Times poll, 92 percent of Americans said it is important for the law to require campaigns and outside spending groups to disclose how much money they have raised, where the money comes from, and how it was used.

Yet, since the Citizens United decision, the once-unifying disclosure issue has degenerated into another divisive set of battles, as long-time conservative proponents of disclosure have changed their positions so dramatically they could be treated for whiplash.

Obviously, conservatives supported disclosure when disclosure was the moderate alternative to the more-stringent alternative of limiting donations. Indeed, most of the conservative arguments against campaign finance reform depended upon transparency requirements -- if forced to depend a system of undisclosed donations, those arguments would have collapsed.

But as has so often happened, conservatives withdrew their support for a more moderate alternative as soon as the more stringent measure it was meant to oppose had disappeared. What seems beyond doubt is that the conservative movement position on campaign finance reform is nothing more or less than supporting whatever arrangement maximizing the political influence of corporations and wealthy individuals. No other explanation can hold together.

Anyway, be sure to read Ornstein's piece in its entirety.

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