The GOP, disclosure, and my pet theory

I've got a piece in this week's Phoenix arguing that while Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's DISCLOSE Act is a worthy endeavor, its incrementalism is insufficient.

First, I argue, requiring the kind of independent political groups powering the presidential election to reveal who is bankrolling their efforts is insufficient as policy. What we really need to curb the corrupting influence of big money in politics is 1) publicly financed campaigns and 2) a constitutional limit on the independent spending that could still distort our elections.

Second, I argue, it is insufficient as politics. The public will never get excited about disclosure. We need a big, bipartisan grassroots campaign that will make the argument for broader reform. And it's got to forgo the wonkese, use bold, irreverent language, and tie campaign finance reform to the issues people care about (i.e. if you don't like your government subsidizing outsourcers, then don't let the outsourcers buy your government).

But that's all preamble.

I want to focus, here, on comments Whitehouse made yesterday after GOP senators twice blocked a vote on the DISCLOSE Act - and what those comments might mean for my pet theory. He accused Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of strong-arming Republican senators who wanted to vote for the bill. From The Nation:

"There is considerable difficulty within the GOP over the position that leader McConnell has obliged them to take,” said Whitehouse. “I’ve been told by colleagues, ‘Look, we know you’re right, but give us a chance to try to work this out within our caucus.’ ”

While Whitehouse didn’t say that Senator Lisa Murkowski made any such remarks, his characterization could accurately explain her bizarre speech on the Senate floor yesterday, in which she endorsed the spirit of the Disclose Act, at times passionately, but then said she couldn’t yet vote for it.

But according to Whitehouse, some Republican senators are increasingly anxious about standing in strong opposition to campaign finance reform. “I’ve been told that Republican senators have spoken to Leader McConnell and said ‘You’re leading us off a cliff here. This is a crazy place for us to be, defending secret unlimited spending, and we’re one scandal away from owning this mess.’”

Whitehouse's comments, in a way, poke a hole in my theory. They suggest that disclosure - even if it isn't equal to the problem - is at least politically feasible. A realizable first step. If there are GOP senators who want to vote for it, after all, then maybe it can eventually pass.

But in a way, the Republican rank-and-file's unwillingness to buck the leadership supports my larger point. Disclosure, it is quite clear, did not get the public fired up; it didn't generate thousands of phone calls and emails to GOP senators' offices; it didn't force those senators to spurn Mitch McConnell.

Consider the case of Senator Scott Brown. The first-term Massachusetts Republican has crossed the aisle before, has voiced support for campaign finance reform, and has every reason to protect his flank. He faces a tough re-election fight, after all - a fight against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who has built her entire political identity around battling the corporate interests suspected of flooding the political system with anonymous donations.

If even Brown doesn't feel compelled to back the DISCLOSE Act, who in the GOP caucus will?

This isn't a call for Whitehouse to give up the fight. It is a worthy one. And maybe he'll surprise me and ull out a victory. But his early struggles, I think, point to the need for a more ambitious effort alongside it. 


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