The legislative kind, not the financial kind.

Sometimes I’m amazed and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of legislation that goes through Congress. We rarely take the time to learn much about a bill’s particulars, with a few major exceptions (Waxman-Markey, Health Care reform, the budget). When I take the time to go in depth on a bill, I realize just HOW MUCH it changes, and how much REAL IMPACT those changes has. Yes, I think those words deserve to be all-caps.

Campaign finance regulations, for example, were on the table this past summer. I’m a fairly politically active adult, and I was unaware that these were even being discussed. I tend to focus on bills in my issue area (because really, how can you monitor thousands of bills?). For a class project, I’ve been intensely researching the DISCLOSE Act – Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections. This research has brought a number of disturbing things to light.

In the 2010 elections, you probably noticed an increase in political advertising. Maybe you noticed that they were being sponsored by bizarre groups, like “Americans for Freedom.” Did you wonder who was behind the ads? They don’t have to tell you. You can look into it yourself, and figure out which ads were really Exxon Mobile in disguise, or the US Chamber of Commerce, but it isn’t easy. Let’s be honest, how many Americans take that extra step? Most cannot even be bothered to vote, let alone do independent research on details of the financing of a 30-second TV commercial. Does that disturb you? It bothers me. I want to know who is paying for these (oftentimes ridiculous) ads.

A few years back, disclosure was required. Then came the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United, where certain disclosure rules were declared unconstitutional. Apparently, disclosure impedes first amendment rights…because of course anonymity is a constitutional right. I’m all for individual privacy, but if you are a business, union, or interest group, and are giving significant amounts to a candidate, I think people have the right to know. From my understanding, this court decision allowed nearly unlimited giving to the front-groups who create these crazy ads – and they don’t have to disclose who the major donors to the front group were. WTF?

So, the Disclose Act meant to fix this. Great, right? Transparency is awesome – how can anyone vote against that? But oh no, it’s never that easy.

The bill was flawed in several ways:

1) It kept the NRA as an exception. At first, JUST the NRA. The NRA is just THAT cool. Then, it got a little more lenient, and included AARP and the Sierra Club (whoopee). Because these organizations have more than 500,000, less than 15% of donations are from corporations, and have been around for 10+ years, they don’t have to follow the same rules as EVERYONE ELSE. Again, they’re that cool.

Why do you think that came about, hmm? It could be that the Democrats wanted the NRA to back them in the upcoming midterm elections…just maybe.

2)  The bill treated unions and corporations differently. Because individual membership fees in unions are so small, individual donors would never have to be named, whereas corporate individual donors would be. I can understand why corporations would be upset by this – unions donate just as much to campaigns, so why should they not be held to the same standard? I’m a little more forgiving with this, but I recognize the inconsistency.

3) The bill was rushed to try to pass before the midterm elections. I agree that this bill was intended to impact the November elections and was rushed to do so. I think a lot of things got lost in the wayside because the party tried to push too hard. I think with more time and more bipartisan interaction during the process (including the consideration of more amendments – considering 5 of 36 amendments doesn’t lend itself to deliberation and good policymaking), the bill could have gotten a lot further.

Will this topic come up again? I don’t doubt it. Is it the right answer to campaign finance issues? Probably not at all, but that’s another discussion. Do I think the bill could have passed? Not without significant changes to the way it was handled and key changes to the language itself. Do I think a disclosure bill needs to pass? Yes, and preferably before the 2012 election cycle.


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