SAUNDERS: In Washington, ‘disclose’ means stifle
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR5175, also known as the Disclose Act, by a 219-206 vote. “Disclose,” you see, is an acronym for “Democracy is strengthened by casting light on spending in elections.”
The measure’s author, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., also happens to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – so you know that the bill has nothing to do with helping Democrats retain their seats. (Just kidding.)
Two Republicans voted for the measure; 36 Democrats voted against it. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it deserves to molder. This bill may have passed largely unnoticed, but if the Senate passes HR5175 as is, with its provision to activate the law in 30 days – conveniently in time for November’s midterm elections but before the Federal Election Commission would have a chance to draft careful rules – voters should see this as a blatant attempt to rig the system.
Proponents want you to think that the bill fills in gaps created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent controversial Citizens United ruling that lifted restrictions on independent political advertising by labor and corporations. They just want special interests to disclose their funding of independent political campaigns. Disclosure, after all, is one of those happy-face ideas in American politics.
But it’s not that simple. For one thing, the measure bans independent campaign expenditures by businesses that do more than $10 million in contracts with the federal government. As the Center for Competitive Politics noted, the bill’s provision against political expenditures by government contractors “abandons the government’s long-standing policy of subjecting unions and corporations to similar restrictions. (The Disclose Act) would impose no similar burden on unions that directly negotiate for salary and benefits with the government or receive government grants, or on nonprofit groups that receive grants or taxpayer funding.”
I understand that in liberal San Francisco, many readers bristle at the notion that corporations have free-speech rights. But you can’t call a bill that muzzles business – but not labor – even-handed. Left or right, you might want to think twice before supporting a measure that allows Washington to choose which groups can and cannot speak out on issues of the day.
Also, disclosure isn’t always apple pie. The ACLU opposes the bill because, according to Michael Macleod-Ball, its chief legislative and policy counsel, “the system is not strengthened by chilling free speech and invading the privacy of modest donors to controversial causes.”
Then there’s the NRA exemption. In order to win passage of the bill with Blue Dog Democrats, Van Hollen agreed to exempt the NRA from disclosure requirements. Then he agreed to expand the exemption to cover other large special interest groups, like the Sierra Club. So it’s an anti-special interest bill that exempts powerful special interests.
“We don’t really think the intent of the bill is to withstand scrutiny in the courts,” said Jeff Patch of the Center for Competitive Politics.
No lie. Here’s a more honest acronym for Disclose: Democrats Intend to Stifle Contrary Leanings with Selective Enforcement.
– E-mail the Tribune’s Wednesday columnist, Debra J. Saunders, at firstname.lastname@example.org.