At first glance it seems the ultimate quixotic effort: persuading the new, more Republican Congress to enact legislation to shine light on the role of special-interest money in elections. But campaign reformers might consider appealing to members of Congress allied with the “tea party.” Those in the movement profess to believe that “we the people” have been eclipsed in the political process by self-dealing politicians and bloated government bureaucracy. Might they be open to the argument that democracy is similarly subverted by corporate and union interests? It’s worth a try.
Advocates of greater transparency in campaign spending suffered a setback in the last Congress when a bill known as the Disclose Act was left stranded. That measure would have required disclosure of the sources of funding for election-related broadcasts and obligated the chief executive officer or equivalent — and in some cases the top donor — to appear on the air and take responsibility for their message.
Campaign reformers are advocating a similar proposal in the new Congress, while pursuing greater enforcement of Internal Revenue Service regulations prohibiting election activity by nonprofits. They also hope to see Congress create a system of public financing for congressional elections, a more doubtful proposition, especially in the Republican-controlled House.
Disclosure, however, is hard to argue with, though corporate interests are trying. Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (a key actor in last year’s political advertising), said: “ ‘Disclosure’ may be the public rallying cry of those seeking to silence the business community. Their real purpose is to find out all they can about our supporters and then target them for intimidation and harassment.” The suggestion that standing behind what it believes puts a corporation and its officers in danger is surreal. Members of Congress who echo such nonsense will expose themselves to criticism that they’re in thrall to special interests.
Which brings us back to the tea party and its friends in Congress. There has been a continuing debate about whether the tea party is primarily a populist movement focused on citizen participation or an unofficial subsidiary of the Republican Party. If the first characterization is accurate, tea partyers will support campaign reform. After all, if the goal is participation by informed citizens, why not expose the special interests behind political messages?