Lift the cloak of secrecy

Wyden and Murkowski's bipartisan bill should do what DISCLOSE Act couldn't

No matter how divided Congress gets, Sen. Ron Wyden doggedly continues to push back with bipartisan bills. For his latest contribution, the Oregon Democrat has teamed up with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to introduce a campaign finance disclosure measure that would let the public know who is spending millions to influence their votes.

S. 791, the Follow the Money Act, picks up where the failed DISCLOSE Act left off — and includes some sweeteners that should — but won't — blunt conservatives' objections that disclosure will "intimidate" donors.

First, the background: The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010 declared that money is speech, and that corporations, labor unions and other entities are entitled to the same First Amendment protection as individuals, and may therefore spend as much money as they like independently to influence the political process. The ruling specifically noted that nothing in the decision prevented Congress from requiring full disclosure of the identities of the "speakers" doing the spending.

Justice Antonin Scalia, usually the darling of conservatives, reinforced that point in a rare interview last summer. The more speech, the better, Scalia said, adding, "That's what the First Amendment is all about — so long as the people know where the speech is coming from."

Unfortunately, Scalia's Republican fans disagree with him. When Democrats attempted to take the justice at his word and introduced the DISCLOSE Act, the GOP filibustered the bill to death in the Senate, with not a single Republican vote.

Wyden and Murkowski are now taking another stab at it, with a bill that would make independent campaign expenditures subject to the same disclosure rules that apply to federal candidates.

At the same time, supporters of the DISCLOSE Act are preparing a revamped version.

Wyden and Murkowski's measure would raise the reporting threshold for contributions from $200 to $1,000, but it would require real-time reporting of contributions to congressional candidates' campaigns and to independent groups.

The $1,000 threshold should put to rest any complaints from opponents that small-money donors' privacy would be invaded. But it won't.

Conservative columnist John Fund, blogging in National Review Online, says the Wyden-Murkowski measure threatens to cross what he calls a fine line between requiring transparency and allowing people and groups to be "intimidated into silence."

In today's 24/7, multi-platform, fully wired public square there is plenty of attempted intimidation going on from all sides on virtually every issue. There is precious little silence.

Direct contributors to candidates already must disclose their identities. Writing checks to independent interest groups should not confer any special cloak of secrecy. Small donors — less than $1,000 — are granted anonymity under the proposed bill. That ought to satisfy those concerned about the tender feelings of those who seek to sway public opinion.

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