What next after Democrats fail at campaign finance reform

Senate Republicans this week halted the Democrats' drive toward campaign finance reform. Democrats can revive their attempt to bring needed transparency to corporate and union spending on campaign ads by compromising and reaching out to moderate Republicans.

Democrats have just found out what happens when they join a good idea – more disclosure in campaign financing – with flawed legislation and partisan politics. They fail.

This week Democrats were unable to find the votes to bring the DISCLOSE Act to the Senate floor for debate. Republicans lined up uniformly against the bill. Even New England’s moderate GOP senators could not be convinced about a reform idea that has in the past enjoyed bipartisan support.

But this issue is too important to meet defeat on the partisan battlefield. It’s time for greater compromise.

The idea behind DISCLOSE, which stands for “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections,” is a right one, meant to blunt the effects of a regrettable, upending decision by the Supreme Court last January.

In the ruling of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court allowed unlimited spending by corporations, unions, and some other groups on campaign ads for or against a candidate.

The 5-to-4 majority reasoned that these entities have the same First Amendment right of free political speech that individuals have. With that ruling, the flood gates have been opened for special interests with deep pockets to overwhelm the voices (i.e., donations) of individuals.

The heart of the Democrats’ solution to an expected advertising influx was to require transparency so that voters at least know who is behind the spending. The proposed law would have required CEOs or other top officials to appear at the end of political ads and claim responsibility for the content – just as candidates do. It would also have required the disclosure of top donors for the ads and the amounts they paid.

So far, so good. But Republicans raised complaints, some legitimate, some less so.

They said the legislation favored unions – the Democrats’ sugar daddy – in reporting requirements. In the end, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer stripped out the most offensive provision. Unions now oppose the bill, an indication of improved fairness. Still, the whole thing has left an unpleasant partisan aftertaste.

Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine who supported campaign finance reform in 2002, objects to reporting exemptions for some groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club. These groups would still be required to stand behind an ad they might produce and would still have to be listed if their entire donations for an advertisement top $10,000. But Senator Collins asks: If these groups get reporting exemptions, why not other groups?

The most glaring flaw, and the one most ripe for compromise, is the proposed outright ban of foreign-controlled corporations or governments, large government contractors, and federal bailout recipients from spending any money in US elections.

As unsavory as it might be to have foreign-led entities or businesses dependent on a government paycheck influencing campaigns, the complete walling off of this group from spending seems to contradict directly the January Supreme Court ruling. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to simply drop this group from a spending ban.

As a concept, transparency does not restrict free speech; it simply illuminates it. Democrats should stick to the main goal of transparency, upheld by the court, and they should apply disclosure rules fairly. Now that they’ve been thwarted in the Senate, they must confer closely with willing moderate Republicans. Reaching across the aisle, they can walk this bill down the aisle.

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