Next week, the U.S. Senate has a chance to do its part to remedy the worst of the ills caused by unlimited corporate spending on American political speech. Debate is scheduled to begin Monday on the DISCLOSE Act. That's an acronym for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections -- and it's not just a clever bill title, but a capsule version of the strong case for its enactment.
This newspaper's Editorial Board did not react with the alarm that was sounded in many quarters two and a half years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court lifted bans on corporate campaign spending. It's not that we relished the thought of well-heeled individuals, corporations, unions and organizations buying all the microphones and megaphones during a political campaign.
Rather, we were heartened by the high court's support for laws that allow voters to know who is paying for campaign messages, along with enough information about their identities and affiliations to allow voters to at least surmise their motives.
That portion of the otherwise 5-4 Citizens United ruling won 8-1 backing on the nine-member court. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority: "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."
To its credit, the 2010 Minnesota Legislature took Kennedy's words to heart. It promptly updated state campaign-finance laws to require disclosure of donors to the new independent-expenditure groups unleashed by Citizens United, now known as super PACs.
That made Minnesotans witness in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign to the value of disclosure in the new post-Citizens United environment. When Target Corp. gave $150,000 to MN Forward, a new business-spawned coalition backing GOP candidate Tom Emmer, Minnesotans and the rest of the nation knew about it quickly. Opponents of Emmer's views could and did respond -- so strongly, in fact, that a chastened Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized a few weeks later, and Target's policies about political donations were revised.
That episode was possible because state law controlled the governor's race. U.S. House and Senate races and the presidential race are governed by federal law, which does not include super PAC disclosure standards. In 2010, the U.S. House -- then under Democratic control -- approved a disclosure bill, only to be foiled by the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome filibusters in the U.S. Senate.
Republican opposition to DISCLOSE has hardened since then. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell justifies that position by claiming that politically active corporations ought to be shielded from a reaction of the sort Target experienced. He claims that the DISCLOSE Act is "an attempt to identify and punish political enemies."
That notion undercuts something essential to a democracy -- accountability. It puts McConnell at odds with one of the most conservative jurists on the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia. In a separate case in 2010, Scalia wrote, "... harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed."
Nothing about the DISCLOSE Act limits spending or speech. It simply allows the people on the receiving end of political messages to know their origin and judge them accordingly. It would require super PACS, unions, corporations and other politically active groups to report contributions of $10,000 or more within 24 hours.
It further would help voters know the real identities of groups with murky names like "Endorse Liberty," by requiring that they list their top five financial contributors. Groups would have to disclose their election expenditures to their members or shareholders. Donors to groups can avoid disclosure by specifying that their gifts may not be used for political purposes.
These are reasonable, even modest responses to the tide of secret money that's on the verge of becoming a tsunami in this election. Already more than $250 million in undisclosed super PAC donations is in play this year, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation. The Senate should say yes to the DISCLOSE Act and give Americans a chance to know where that money is coming from.
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