Why Do Conservatives Think Campaign-Disclosure Laws Are So Scary?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 27 2012 5:40 PM

Leave My Millionaire Alone

Conservatives are decrying efforts to get donors to disclose their campaign contributions as a thuggish threat to free speech. Really?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks during a brief press conference after the weekly House GOP caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol June 6, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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?

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg 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.

Advertisement

“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!”

According to Phillips, the left hates rich donors because they’re rich. You can certainly find some bilious left-wingers who feel that way. Roll tape of one of the Occupy protests that got meta-occupied by Black Bloc anarchists in kaffiyeh chokers. Listen to the audience applause for a Colbert Report segment about Mitt’s car elevator and Ann’s dancing horse. Read Atlas Shrugged again. “The man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably,” says Ayn Rand’s copper mining scion Francisco d’Anconia. “The man who respects it has earned it.”

Ah, but if only every donor was an Ayn Rand character. They’d give better speeches—real stemwinders, sentences running on sentences like a babbling country stream. They also wouldn’t want anything from the government. We can’t say that for every donor, can we? That’s why we want to know who they are. One example: We know a lot about George Kaiser, the Tulsa multimillionaire who bundled for the Obama campaign and subsequently used White House meetings to convince people that Solyndra would pay off if it got the right-sized loan guarantee. If we didn’t read about him in Carol Leonning’s stories for the Washington Post, we could have seen the Americans for Prosperity ads about him. “Solyndra investors raise campaign money for Obama,” sighed AFP’s narrator. “The government gives half a billion dollars in taxpayer money. Politics as usual.”

The point of the ad is that wealthy people sometimes give to campaigns, exercising a few million points of free speech, because they want to influence how the government moves money around. A green energy investor might donate to Democrats who think green energy will save Gaia. Somebody on week 97 of unemployment might vote for the candidate who extends unemployment insurance. A brown energy investor probably wants Barack Obama to lose so that a new EPA and Interior Department will lay off already with the regulations.

Nah, strike that—they’re probably just operating in enlightenment and good faith. The American Action Network, the latest group to join this campaign against disclosure, produced a web ad that starts with images of D-Day—“heroes fought and died for our rights”—and shows the First Amendment literally vanishing, like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, as McConnell warns of the Obama threats.

But there’s no evidence that Obama is using the tools of government—as opposed to PR and speeches—to attack his enemies. Gavin Aronson points out that liberal-leaning good-government groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the Campaign Finance Center have asked the IRS to investigate 501(c)(4)s that enjoy preferred tax status and use it for “educational” campaigns that are basically just Obama-phobic infomercials. That’s more than the administration’s tried to do, at a time when Super PACs are battering it with ads.

At AEI, the only privacy leak cited by McConnell was that “IRS information found its way into the hands of a staunch critic on the left who also happens to be a co-chairman of President Obama’s re-election committee.” This was an oddly veiled reference to the National Organization for Marriage, not a tycoon, and the leak-promoter was the Human Rights Campaign. The only organizational threat was an “IRS decision revoking the tax-exempt status of small political nonprofit groups that undoubtedly foreshadows an effort to do the same to bigger groups on the right that the Obama administration regards as a threat to its campaign.” The group: Just one, a Democratic candidate-training combine called Emerge America.

Nixing a tax break, or checking whether or not a group deserves the tax break, or asking who funds it—it’s all a “thuggish” threat to free speech. Apparently, the difference between an ad that says “paid for by Sheldon Adelson” and an ad that keeps it quiet is a jackboot stomping on a human face.

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Nov. 26 2014 12:36 PM Slate Voice: “If It Happened There,” Thanksgiving Edition Josh Keating reads his piece on America’s annual festival pilgrimage.