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Wed., June 2, 2010

Campaign finance law doesn’t need party décor

A bill in Congress contains some ingredients for healthy campaign finance reform, but it’s ruined with gooey gamesmanship and a nutty partisan center. That’s too bad, because if the bill were stripped of its confection, it would fortify a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

On the surface, the DISCLOSE Act is a response to the high court’s Citizens United ruling, which struck down many of the restrictions on corporate spending under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

OK, say the authors of the bill, corporations and unions can open their wallets more widely, but let’s not let them hide their identities. This “stand by your ad” idea is akin to sign-offs uttered by candidates: “This is General Motors, and we approve of this ad.” If an ad were run by an umbrella group for corporations, the top five donors would have to be identified.

As is, corporations can enter the political fray under assumed names, which effectively shields them from the consequences of their political positions. For instance, BP can morph into “Citizens for a Cleaner Gulf.”

Candidates cannot do this; corporations shouldn’t be able to either.

In fact, the majority opinion in Citizens United noted the vital role that disclosure plays in allowing corporations more unfettered speech. And as Justice Antonin Scalia remarked recently, “running a democracy requires a certain amount of civic courage.” If groups have the courage of their convictions, they shouldn’t have any qualms about identifying themselves.

If the bill ended there, we could support it. But this is an election year, and the two Democrats who are behind this measure, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., also hold or have held key positions with Democratic election committees. So they’ve weighed the bill down with partisan restrictions that affect corporations but not unions.

The bill would limit the participation of corporations if they have a certain level of foreign ownership, take government contracts or were given bailout money. These “gotcha” provisions are designed to produce better results for Democrats in November, not a better overall law. Some of the provisions have questionable constitutional merit under the First Amendment, which could doom the entire effort.

More sunshine is always welcome in campaign laws, but partisanship clouds this effort. A simple, clear disclosure law is all that’s needed.

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