Blame game on lack of Super PAC disclosures

Article Highlights

  • First disclosure of #SuperPAC donors won't come until after #Florida & covers through Dec. 31 - missing donations before key #GOP primaries

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  • Only thing #bipartisan now is loophole action: the DISCLOSE Act could've provided meaningful #disclosure had one #Republican voted for it

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  • Reporters need to truthfully hold #politicians accountable for opposing disclosure, unless they want the sorry status quo to remain

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The calls I have received from reporters of late have been concentrated on two subjects: the looming disclosure of super PAC donors and the status of the “do-nothing 112th Congress.”

I will soon tackle the realities behind Congress’ activity and outputs, or lack thereof, in the 112th, which have contributed significantly to the abysmal approval rating Congress has been enduring for the past year-plus.

But the more ripe issue is disclosure and given the Tuesday midnight deadline for disclosure of donors, I thought it merited some reflection.

It is good that we will have some disclosure of the mega-donors to the spate of super PACs that have dominated the landscape and the airtime across the presidential primaries and caucuses so far — but it is ridiculous that reporting requirements are so lame that the first disclosure in six months will not come until after voters in Florida have made their perhaps pivotal choice in the Sunshine State’s Republican presidential primary.

And even then, the disclosure will cover only the period to Dec. 31 — meaning it will miss the key infusion of cash before New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. And then we will go back into disclosure hibernation through the rest of the key primary season.

"But contrary to Burnett, Levinthal and CNN, the lack of disclosure is the fault of one party..." -- Norman Ornstein

But that is at least an area of campaign activity that requires some kind of disclosure, however woeful. Then we have the ruse being used by groups such as American Crossroads GPS — manipulating the tax code knowing that a feckless IRS won’t even enforce its own regulations, to create 501(c)(4) organizations that do not have to disclose any of their donors because they claim that political activities make up only a fraction of their overall work (LOL). And we have the ability of major corporations to hide their campaign donations by using the cloak of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

After Citizens United, Congress moved to try to close some of the gaps with the DISCLOSE Act, introduced in the House by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and in the Senate by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). The bill passed the House on a near-party-line vote in 2010 and died in the Senate on the shoals of a filibuster.

All 59 Democrats voted for cloture, meaning the bill to provide meaningful disclosure would have made it through with the support of one of the 41 Republicans — a group that, of course, included Sen. John McCain, co-author of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act known as McCain-Feingold that was upended by Citizens United, and Sen. Olympia Snowe, co-author of the key feature of McCain-Feingold that was especially singled out by the Supreme Court in Citizens United.

Shamefully, not a single one of the Republicans, including many others who had long supported disclosure, voted for the bill, and we are now reaping the whirlwind.

One reporter who did not call me about this issue was CNN’s Erin Burnett, who anchored a show on Jan. 27 that shows why so many observers of our politics are frustrated with the inadequacies and myopia of so much of the mainstream media who practice what journalist James Fallows calls “false equivalence.”

Burnett started her piece on super PACs and disclosure by saying of the lack of disclosure overall, “This is a situation where what you’re seeing is each side not wanting to disclose and saying, ‘Well the other side isn’t going to disclose so I’m not going to disclose, instead of everyone shaking hands and saying we should all disclose. It’s good for America.’ Like we said, Democratic and Republican bipartisan loophole action, at least something is bipartisan these days.”

She then turned to Dave Levinthal of Politico, who said, “Well, of course, the Democrats want to blame the Republicans and the Republicans want to blame the Democrats, but you’re right. This is not exclusive to any one party, and is this going to change? Well, Congress tried to change it back in 2010. They tried to pass a piece of legislation called the DISCLOSE Act. Well, it went nowhere.”

Both parties have plenty of actors and allies willing to exploit the laws and loopholes in the campaign finance system. But contrary to Burnett, Levinthal and CNN, the lack of disclosure is the fault of one party; a failure to give accurate information to Americans to hold the politicians appropriately accountable makes CNN at least an unindicted co-conspirator.

A revised and streamlined version of the DISCLOSE Act will reappear this year. We might also see action by the White House on a proposed executive order applying to companies that do business with the federal government the same standards of disclosure to the new wave of corporate and union contributions to independent political activities as exists for direct campaign contributions.

Unless reporters do their job and tell the truth about who really walks the walk on trying to reform the secrecy regime in campaign finance and who abandoned the pretense of supporting disclosure to protect the big donors, the sorry status quo will almost certainly prevail.

Norman Ornstein is resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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