In 2002, Senator Paull Wellstone (D-MN) offered an amendment to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation to ban so-called “sham issue advocacy” groups from airing ads within 60 days of an election. His amendment targeted undisclosed campaign groups — from the NRA, to the Sierra Club, and the National Right to Life. If it weren’t for the Supreme Court later knocking down these rules (see Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC & the Citizens United case), it would have also applied to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and other groups now prevalent in our election system.

A review of the roll call vote for the Wellstone amendment shows a surprising list of supporters, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the leader of the opposition to campaign finance reform and the sworn enemy of disclosure. Even modest reforms, like the DISCLOSE Act, are a “threat … [to] the First Amendment,” in McConnell’s eyes.

So why’d he support a bill that goes far beyond the DISCLOSE Act, which would have simply required transparency for outside money groups rather than spending restrictions, like the Wellstone amendment?

It goes to show how cynical Washington politics can be. As the New York Times and Slate noted at the time, McConnell and a group of pro-outside spending senators voted for the Wellstone amendment as a “poison pill” — hoping its inclusion into the bill would deem the larger McCain-Feingold legislation as unconstitutional:

A number of Senate Republicans who usually oppose any restrictions on issue advertising as an encroachment on free-speech protections voted for the amendment. Their ranks included such party leaders as the majority leader, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, also changed his vote at the last minute to support the amendment. As Mr. Thurmond stood and voted, Mr. McConnell, the chief opponent of the McCain-Feingold effort, was standing at his side.

To recap, McConnell voted once in support of restricting the speech of outside money groups — funded by unlimited corporate, union, and individual contributions — but now regards any attempt to disclose these group’s donors as an assault on the constitution. But he made the initial vote as part of a legislative ploy to kill a larger reform effort. The moving goal posts are simply part of Washington politics, a system too often gamed by shadowy interest groups bent on killing reform.

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