Presto! The DISCLOSE Act Disappears

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Ask any magician and they’ll tell you that the secret to a successful magic trick is misdirection — distracting the crowd so they don’t realize how they’re being fooled. Get them watching your left hand while your right hand palms the silver dollar: “Now you see it, now you don’t.” The purloined coin now belongs to the magician.

Just like democracy. Once upon a time conservatives supported the full disclosure of campaign contributors. Now they oppose it with their might — and magic, especially when it comes to unlimited cash from corporations. My goodness, they say, with a semantic wave of the wand, what’s the big deal?: nary a single Fortune 500 company had given a dime to the super PACs. (Even that’s not entirely true, by the way.)

Meanwhile the other hand is poking around for loopholes, stuffing millions of secret corporate dollars into non-profit, tax-exempt organizations called 501(c)s that funnel the money into advertising on behalf of candidates or causes. Legally, in part because the Federal Election Commission does not consider them political committees, they can keep it all nice and anonymous, never revealing who’s really behind the donations or the political ads they buy. This is especially handy for corporations — why risk offending customers by revealing your politics or letting them know how much you’re willing to shell out for a permanent piece of an obliging politician?

That’s why passing a piece of legislation called the DISCLOSE Act is so important and that’s why on Monday, Republicans in the Senate killed it. Again.

Why? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “Perhaps Republicans want to shield the handful of billionaires willing to contribute nine figures to sway a close presidential election.” The election, he said, may be bought by “17 angry, old, white men.”

The DISCLOSE Act is meant to pull back the curtain and reveal who’s donating $10,000 or more not only to super PACs but also to trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and these so-called “social welfare” non-profits that can spend limitless cash on campaigns as long as it’s less than half the organization’s total budget.

The New York Times recently cited a report by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Center for Public Integrity finding that “during the 2010 midterm elections, tax-exempt groups outspent super PACs by a 3-to-2 margin with most of that money devoted to attacking Democrats or defending Republicans.”  We’re talking in excess of $130 million. What’s more, the Times reported, “such groups have accounted for two-thirds of the political advertising bought by the biggest outside spenders so far in the 2012 election cycle… with close to $100 million in issue ads.”

We know a few of the corporations that are contributing, but just a few, and that’s only by accident or via scattered governance reports, regulatory filings and tax returns. The insurance monolith Aetna, for example, gave more than $3 million to a pro-Republican non-profit called American Action Network, which spent millions on ads attacking Obama’s health care plan – even though, publicly Aetna supported the president.  The Chamber of Commerce has pledged to spend at least $50 million on this election. Its contributors include Dow Chemical, Prudential Financial and MetLife.

But they’re just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Without disclosure we have little idea of all the big businesses that are buying our democracy — and doing their best to drown it at the bottom of the sea.

All of this, of course, is more blowback from the horrible Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which unleashed this corporate cash monster. Just this week, Justice Richard Posner of U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals – a Republican and until recently, no judicial liberal — said that Citizens United had created a political system that is “pervasively corrupt” in which “wealthy people essentially bribe legislators.”

Nonetheless, at the time of the ruling two and a half years ago, eight of the nine justices also made it clear that key to the decision was the importance of transparency. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The First Amendment protects political speech and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.”

One of the DISCLOSE Act’s biggest opponents isn’t buying that argument.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who used to say, “We need to have real disclosure,” has changed his tune. Now that conservatives and the GOP are able to haul in the big bucks, he claims that divulging the identity of corporate donors would be the equivalent of creating an “enemies list,” like the one Richard Nixon kept to punish his foes and settle political scores. Here’s what McConnell said in a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute last month:

“This is nothing less than an effort by the government itself to expose its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third party allies… That’s why it’s a mistake to view the attacks we’ve seen on ‘millionaires and billionaires’ as outside our concern. Because it always starts somewhere; and the moment we stop caring about who’s being targeted is the moment we’re all at risk.”

McConnell’s not the only one — every Republican voted to kill the DISCLOSE Act, including fourteen who just a couple of years ago supported it. Groups like Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty smell an un-American conspiracy lurking behind the demands for disclosure. So do the National Rifle Association and FreedomWorks — the Tea Party organizers originally funded by David Koch — each of which warned senators that their votes on the DISCLOSE Act will be included in the scorecards they keep, recording each ballot they don’t approve like pins in a voodoo doll.

Their outrage is ridiculous and hypocritical. These non-profits are just another magic trick, an illusion intended to obscure the fact that these are monumental slush funds, plain and simple. As The Washington Post noted in an editorial this week:

“We seem to have created the political equivalent of secret Swiss bank accounts… In their lust for contributions, in cozying up to the moneybags of this era, candidates and political operatives in both parties seem to be forgetting that they put their own credibility at risk.”

Contrary to Senator McConnell’s view, this is more corrupt and covert than anything that happened during Watergate. The public has a right to know who’s behind the hundreds of political ads with which we’re being bombarded this year, who’s giving what to whom — not to mention our right to try to connect the dots and figure out what their motives are.

The good news is that people are fighting back. On July 5th, California joined state legislatures in Hawaii, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings July 24th and the state of Montana, which recently had its law barring corporate spending in elections struck down by the Supreme Court, has put a voter initiative on its November ballot, also calling for a constitutional amendment.

Lee Drutman at the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation quotes the father of our Constitution, James Madison, who warned, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both.” Drutman goes on to point out that, “The Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed by Anonymous. Those who sign the big checks should have the very same courage in their convictions.”


Watch Moyers & Company weekly on public television.

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  • Slider2015

    greedy american pjgs.
    No wonder the country is falling apart. No one cares bout anything but money and whose necks you break to make a buck.

  • Jason Switzer

    I fear it would take nothing short of a national catastrophe , an astroid strike, a mega earthquake or super volcanic eruption, to wrestle the power out of the hands of the wealthy . Mere congressional action (there’s an oxymoron) will never be enough. Laws are there  to be bought and sold. The pendulum has swung and, it seems, has been nailed to the  far right by a hammer of gold. Normal , everyday people have been convinced to vote against their own interests. It’s as if you could easily con slaves into voting for the plantation owner. We now fall under the hooves of the golden calf.

  • T.J. O’Hara

    Here are the voluntarily restrictions I have imposed on my independent Presidential campaign:

    (1) Cap donations at an amount that any individual can contribute to eliminate the influence of money and create parity among all citizens (i.e., placing Warren Buffet on par with a homeless person from a political perspective).

    (2) Only eligible citizens can legally vote. Therefore, only eligible citizens should be allowed to contribute to a political campaign. This eliminates the corruption that can be attributed to corporate and union money that is filtered through PACs and the deceptive practice of claiming not to accept PAC money while allowing it to be “laundered” through other campaign committees that accept such donations.  Correspondingly, it is an obvious fiction to assume that any organization can accurately reflect the will of its members, and given that the members (if eligible to vote) can adequately represent themselves, it is also categorically unnecessary.

    (3) Report every contribution. Since the amounts are nominal, the “enemies list” concern is rendered moot and full disclosure is achieved.

    (3) Donate any residual contributions at the end of the campaign to worthy charities that will actually do something beneficial for society rather than hoarding the cash for a re-election bid or using it to “buy” votes through contributions to other elected officials campaign committees during the ensuing years.

    I don’t need the Supreme Court to rule on “integrity” or for the Legislative Branch to enact a law that regulates it.  That’s what real leadership is about.  If you’d like to learn more, I’m easy to find on the web (TJOHARA).

  • Warblingbird

    The Declaration of Independence needs to be dusted off and used again.

  • Anonymous

    Those of us in the 99% or less, must be the perpetual and persistently irritating fleas to the elitist dogs of Captialism and anti-democracy hounds.

  • larry riedinger

    Dear Mr. Moyers,

    Thanks for getting back on the air!Idea:  A program devoted to the, potential, impact of the biblical Jubilee Year found in Leviticus 25-26.  (I suspect we both find an ethical foundation there!)

    That would sure throw the Religious Right, as Gospel of Wealthers, into a frenzy – or so I would hope.

    Thanks for your labors!

  • Anonymous

    It is sad to see what is left of our Democracy unravel while powerless to change it. We live in a Plutocracy and while it might be nice to toss about platitudes derived from American exceptionalisms canard – the reality seems much more bleak.

    How is it we, irrespective of party affiliation, can wrestle control of Goverment from corporations, wealthy individuals, and corrupt politicians motivated purely by self-preservation? An almost herculian task made even more difficult when the aforementioned lie to us with impunity from the hands of justice or the pen of the media.

    I watched as McCain, call it what it was, lied on the floor this a.m. and yet, because of House Rules Sheldon Whitehouse said nothing – could say nothing – and it seems utterly hopeless and shameful that we bicker right vs left as corporate America further cements control of this new America. Yet, lets continue the partisan hackery, lets continue to condone that 6 members of the Walton family are worth more than the poorest 110,000,000 Americans – while paying a non-living wage to its employees.

    A society that cannot agree that for-profit health care is morally bankrupt or cannot even raise taxes on the wealthiest amongst us in the face of facts such as…in 2010 the wealthiest 1% of the country earned 93% of the income. A society that continues to pray at the alter of a perverse sense of capitalism that offers equal opportunity in name only….fueled by opinion and not fact, rhetoric and not reality…

    Money is now the vote and it is much more powerful than truth, morality, compassion, and the   voter. “the best country in the world” pfft – not even close.

  • Plant_mgr

    I don’t vote anymore. Elections are scams. There is no choice and the candidates are owned by the 1%. You have to be naive to vote.

  • SpaceEagle

     You’re probably correct, but just not voting isn’t going to change anything.

  • Dennis

    Shame on you.  You are as much to blame for the mess in the United States as those to whom you point your finger.  You want a good candidate, then get active in the process of selection.  Oh, yes, I am naive, I vote and have voted for the past 40+ years, and I am proud to be naive.  At least I care.

  • David F., N.A.

    This isn’t only a Republican issue.  If they didn’t have the votes, you could bet your bottom dollar that the special interest groups would have released enough blue dogs to kill this bill.  The Reid and Pelosi crews are just as corrupt as McConnell and Boehner’s. Americans, Teabaggers excluded, lost our government’s 50% threshold a long time ago, so our only recourse is, literally, OCCUPY D.C.

  • jmsptrk

    No they are not. They’re spot on. And yet…I vote. But I see little difference in candidates, and always leave the polling station depressed. 

  • UnlikelyHistorian

    “None Dare Call It Treason”
          ~ Congressman John Stormer (1963)

  • Dan Aronson

    If you clear your mind of partisanship for a second and listen, you will hear everything you need to konw in this sentence.  Just because the author vilified the Republicans in this article doesn’t exonerate the Democrats of wrong doing.  When last in the minority, the Democrats themselves killed 72 bills using the filibuster; and it’s not as if they have declared a moratorium on Super PACs.  The fact is that both parties are mass murders of democracy — the Republicans are just a bit better at it.  Let’s not get caught up in the body count.  Murder is murder.
    What we need to do is to kick them both out of Washington and replace them with those that would represent The People — not fat cats and fat corporations.  We need a third, better choice whose philosophy is more centered, such as Party Recon (  Under their administration, everyone would get something, instead of a few getting everything. 

  • Given Up

    You care and the rest of us don’t???? You way beyond naive (don’t make me use the obvious word).

    Keep voting for the lesser of evils and you will get…just what we have now…CONGRATULATIONS ON GETTING INVOLVED…YOU HAVE MADE SUCH DIFFERENCE.  We’re falling apart at the seams…any other ideas??????

  • Foxtrot_geo

    …and an idiot not to. You, are not entitled to an opinion.

  • Foxtrot_geo

    Name-calling is the last resort of the impotent (in every respect). The fact that Americans are speaking out about this and protesting about it and upset belies your broad-brush generalization that Americans are “greedy pigs.”  Besides, the uber-rich and plutocracy is far from limited to American shores. Look at the Vatican. Look at Russia. Saudi Arabia. Argentina. India. Germany. Plenty of greedy pigs elsewhere.

  • tbone88

    so you’re going to pick up your marble and go home to suck your thumb under a blanket you pull over your head?  c’mon, that’s too easy and exactly what the mutant dark side would like for all of us to do. I understand your feeling, I really tried to sleep my way through the distorted mess that we have, but I was unable, in the end, to make the “cure” a cure.
    Stay tough & fight the good fight; in the end, what choice do we really have?

  • tbone88

    investigate, research, discover a candidate of whatever party, from whatever state,  that you can support (including donations, in order to be able to compete with the graft). make their voice stronger.
    the minute we abdicate our responsibilities, we seal the tomb of democracy

  • tbone88

    well stated!  I must sadly agree.  there will be no wholesale changes in my lifetime, so my concern shifts to my children, my grandchildren. I must retain hope that the pendulum of history might begin to swing back, but will happen only when we continue to do our own “swinging” back.  yes, sometimes I feel like I’ve developed masochistic tendencies, but, in the long run, find myself unable to not respond as best I can.

  • SalinasPhil

     I fully agree that elections are scams. For those in the other camp, if you still believe that voting is the answer, then you likely also believe that cheering for a sports team leads to game victories. There is no correlation in sports and there is no correlation in American politics. Sure, voting can yield representatives that wear red vs blue ties, but it doesn’t produce representatives that act differently.

    BOTH parties are bought, owned, and paid for by the same oligarchs. Sure, one party says it’s more interested in the average American, but notice how both parties do almost exactly the same things. They surround themselves with the same oligarchs, take money from the same oligarchs, and represent the same oligarchs.

    Look, we all want the same things — a major change in the way America works. But voting is not the answer anymore, I’m afraid. We need a peaceful revolution to make real change really happen. Millions need to march, protest, and force a change to the status quo.

    There is another alternative towards a fix that I think is more likely. That being the collapse of the global financial system — due to the vast corruption and debt within. I’m now hoping and expecting this collapse to occur. My hope is driven by the prospect that it will present a real opportunity to re-evaluate how to better run the world.

  • Anonymous

    We live in a democracy. One dollar, one vote. You vote for the corporations every day when you buy things, but vote against them (well, about 10% ? of you do) during an election with a single mark on a ballot that may or may not be counted. You can be damned sure that every dollar is counted, representatives (representative republic, remember?) are chosen based on those dollars, and those representatives will represent those dollars, not the electoral marks on paper.
    When the government puts a gun to people’s heads to tell them to buy a product at the prices set by the seller of the product (not the government), it’s fascism: the corporations are telling the government what to do and how to do it.
    Regardless of whether you vote for the Democrats, who favor the drug companies, or the Republicans, who favor the Sickness Exploitation Companies (insurance), your vote is of little consequence to the future. The boom and bust cycle of civilization is in motion, and changes and intentional choices will not matter until the rebuilding process starts. 
    Try not to fall for the Charisma Trap if you live through it.

  • Susan

    It’s hard to elect someone who might buck the system and shake things up a little.   Remember Howard Dean and the scream?  The media played it over and over…..and over until many people were convinced he was just a bit unstable and therefore unelectable.  Too bad, but those who may make a difference get weeded out of the process.  The big money folks behind the scenes make sure of it.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you. In turn, well expressed. we’ll row against what is now the current together.