It’s an election year, and incumbents are nervous. And so, in a classic sign of political weakness, Senate Democrats have scheduled a vote on legislation that would manipulate campaign-finance laws to silence their opponents.
Their weapon is the “DISCLOSE Act,” a gimmicky acronym for “Democracy Is Served by Casting Light on Spending in Elections.” Democrats in Congress have been trying to pass various versions of the bill since the winter of 2010, when Republican Scott Brown’s stunning victory in the special election to succeed the late Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts revealed the unpopularity of Obamacare and the Democratic agenda.
Despite claims that the bill would merely inform the public about campaign spending, DISCLOSE originally would have prohibited large amounts of speech, and not just about candidates. Senate Democrats failed to break a Republican filibuster on this first version by one vote in 2010, and their majority has shrunk since then. But they haven’t given up, and while they haven’t passed a budget in over three years, they have scheduled a cloture vote (i.e., the vote needed to break a filibuster) on a new version of DISCLOSE for Monday.
In an implicit admission of the true scope of the original DISCLOSE bill, we are assured that the new bill has been stripped of all the 2010 bill’s provisions that had nothing to do with disclosure.
If the bill has been stripped of its non-disclosure provisions, why should anyone be opposed to it? First, because DISCLOSE attempts to scare and regulate people into remaining silent. Second, because this is clearly being done for partisan purposes. And third, because we already have more campaign-finance disclosure than ever before, and more disclosure is simply unnecessary.
First, silence. As Senator Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) said when introducing the original bill in 2010, “the deterrent effect [of DISCLOSE] should not be underestimated.”
The bill’s real aim is to force trade associations and nonprofits to publicly name their donors. Such lists might be used by competing groups to poach members, or, more ominously, by government officials to threaten or retaliate against political opponents, or by interest groups to gin up boycotts and threats against the individual and corporate members of the groups.
As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) noted in a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, the Obama campaign has already been encouraging supporters to harass and publicly vilify and embarrass political opponents. Liberal groups have also been threatening corporations with lawsuits, disruption of shareholder meetings, and boycotts if they engage in political speech that departs from the liberal agenda. Conservative organizations’ members and donors have lost their jobs after liberal groups boycotted their employers — employers that had nothing to do with conservative causes themselves.
Beyond intimidation, there is the sheer force of regulation. Perhaps the most infamous provision of the McCain-Feingold law was a restriction on the ability of groups, within 60 days of a general election, even to mention the name of a congressman running for reelection. DISCLOSE resurrects this idea with a vengeance.
Unlike McCain-Feingold, DISCLOSE does not contain an outright ban on such ads, because the Supreme Court has held that McCain-Feingold’s ban is unconstitutional. Instead, Democrats now seek to discourage political opposition by using massive amounts of red tape to bury groups that want to use TV or radio ads to lobby Congress or inform the public. The added rules are intended to wreak havoc on the groups’ already-overregulated activities.