July 20, 2012

Maine’s Two Senators Were Once Champions Of Campaign Disclosure; Now They Bow To K Street-Prescribed Secrecy

If Maine’s two senators, or even one of them, had stood by their long-held principles, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today where the majority of the outside spending groups are completely undisclosed, and even foreign corporations can spend in our elections without any transparency. Because of the Supreme Court, we can’t limit this spending; but disclosure is a story of political will, or the lack thereof.

Indeed, either one of Maine’s senate delegation — Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — both Republicans, could have been the deciding vote to break the GOP filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act, when it was blocked two years ago. The bill failed 59-39. Earlier this week, with Senate GOP numbers boosted since the midterm elections, the bill failed by an even larger margin.

Just a decade prior, Snowe was the Senate’s champion of disclosure. In passionate speech on the Senate floor protecting her amendment to McCain-Feingold (called Snowe-Jeffords), she argued: “I hope that the Senate will stand four square behind disclosure and sunlight and against the uncheck process of these [outside] electioneering ads that have certainly I think transformed the political landscape in ways that we could not possibly desire or embrace.” The video is posted above.

Snowe’s bill, which Collins voted for in 1998 along with several other Republicans, forced outside money groups, like the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club, to disclose contributions if they were to run ads near an election. Thus, fake “issue advocacy” groups would be forced to play by the same rules as any other campaign committee active in an election. Back then, it was perfectly normal for Republicans — from Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) — to support simple disclosure of campaign funds. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein noted at the time, the disclosure requirements of Snowe’s amendment perfectly passed constitutional muster.

Why did these champions of disclosure and good government completely change their minds? Snowe and Collins have been mum on the subject.

The change, of course, coincides with increasing demands from the big business lobby. As I’ve noted for The Nation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among other corporate lobbying groups, have ruthlessly exploited the Citizens United decision to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate money into the election system. Since businesses are fearful of engaging directly and endangering their brand to public scorn, the Chamber has provided multiple 501(c) fronts as channels to launder money into the system with no identification at all. The anonymity granted to these companies is the reason they keep spending more and more every year.

And the Chamber, among other lobby groups, has taken an increasingly violent tone to defend their secret spending. Last year, the Chamber’s lobbyists were so concerned about mandatory disclosure, that one even compared going to war with the Obama administration on the issue to killing Qaddafi. “We will fight it through all available means,” the Chamber’s Bruce Josten told the New York Times. Referencing the effort to depose Libya’s leader, Muammar Qaddafi, Josten said, “To quote what they say every day on Libya, all options are on the table.”

Who knows what kind of threats they made to Snowe and Collins.