Leave My Millionaire Alone
Conservatives are decrying efforts to get donors to disclose their campaign contributions as a thuggish threat to free speech. Really?
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
I give it a week before New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman becomes infamous. His sin: a subpoena, first reported by Nicholas Confessore, for “e-mails, bank records and other documents” from the National Chamber Foundation and the Starr Foundation. His questions: Has the U.S. Chamber of Commerce been playing Criss Angel tricks with campaign money? Did the National Chamber Foundation hand $18 million over to the mothership so it could be used on politics?
The problem, for Schneiderman, is that even attempting to track down the sources of “dark money” has become controversial. “In the midst of a highly charged political season,” said senior vice president Thomas J. Collamore, “it comes as no surprise that the New York State Attorney General would use his office to rehash a very old story about the Chamber’s finances. The subpoena they have issued closely resembles a politically motivated letter that an activist group sent to the IRS in 2010, also just before an important election.” That’s right on message. A growing number of Republican and conservative voices characterize efforts to disclose campaign contributions as bullying, intimidation, and a threat to free speech.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has handled the intellectual heavy-lifting. On June 15, McConnell addressed the American Enterprise Institute on the “growing threats to our First Amendment rights.” The major threat was the DISCLOSE Act, the Democratic bill that would (short version) force all political campaign groups to open their books.
“If disclosure is forced upon some but not all,” said McConnell, “it’s not an act of good government, it’s a political weapon. And that’s precisely what those who are pushing this legislation have in mind. This is nothing less than an effort by the government itself to exposes its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies.”
Nothing less. McConnell read out the names of the victims.
Charles and David Koch, charitable businessmen who employ “tens of thousands of people,” had suffered because a presidential aide “insinuate[d] they’d done something shady on their taxes,” and an Obama campaign e-mail informed donors of “a Koch-backed event, presumably to incite just the kind of mob that showed up.”
Idaho businessman Frank VanderSloot, who’d merely been “speaking out on behalf of candidates and causes the president opposes,” had appeared on an Obama campaign website about six-figure Romney donors. After that, “people were digging through his divorce records, cable television hosts were going after him on air, and bloggers were harassing his kids.”
Dozens of Tea Party groups had “received a lengthy questionnaire from the IRS demanding attendance lists, meeting transcripts, and donor information.”
That last item stood out. Maybe the IRS should demand data from new activist groups that want tax exemptions, but it’s irritating, a threat from the government. Taxpayer money was funding an inquest backed by the taxpayer-funded police force. You couldn’t say that about anything else McConnell mentioned. As he defined it, any public criticism was a threat to their free speech.
Conservative activists are with him on this one. The same day that McConnell gave this talk, David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity was bringing activists into the Las Vegas’ Venetian Hotel for the annual RightOnline conference. (Koch chairs AFP and donates an undisclosed amount to the group.) Koch conservatives huddled in a Sheldon Adelson hotel? Bloggers should be proud. “I know the left hates guys like Sheldon Adelson,” said AFP president Tim Phillips, “and frankly, our foundation chairman David Koch. But that's OK, because we love 'em! Right? We love these guys, who go out and create jobs and prosperity!”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.