For years, Republicans said when it came to preventing corruption through money in politics, disclosure was the surest antidote to corruption — more so than dollar restrictions on spending, which could drive illicit activity underground.
But now that dollar restrictions have been lifted on some groups, Republicans are opposing a measure to inform voters about who is financing the negative ads flooding the airwaves.
A top House Democrat accused Republicans this week of using disclosure as a Trojan horse, criticizing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, as a hypocrite who "launched an all-out war on the constitutionality of disclosure."
The rhetoric follows a speech by Mr. McConnell at the American Enterprise Institute in which he said President Obama's support for a bill requiring increasing transparency from outside political groups represents "radicalism" aimed at stifling opponents' speech.
Long-standing limits on contributions to some advocacy groups were dismantled following the 2010 Supreme Court ruling Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which led to "super PACs" that have run tens of millions of dollars in ads this year. The disclosure of donors was strongly tied to the court's rationale for allowing them.
But a progression of clever arguments by lawyers has eroded the constraints that once guarded against secret money. And many groups now organize as nonprofits ostensibly for the "social welfare," rather than super PACs, to run sharply political ads. They don't disclosing donors.
To deal with the changing landscape, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat and former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wrote the Disclose Act to require nonprofits running political ads to reveal their donors and super PAC ads to display the names of the top five funders. It passed the House in 2010 but has since been blocked by Republicans.
Mr. McConnell on June 15 painted the millionaires who have financed political ads as victims of harassment over their opinions, as the subjects of newspaper stories based on federal data.
Mr. Van Hollen said Wednesday that exposure to criticism is part of entering the political discourse. The pro-disclosure Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, he said, noted that it took "a certain amount of civic courage" to participate in democracy.
"The Koch brothers, I'm sure George Soros and others who want to spend money to influence elections, as is their right, I'm sure people sometimes say things that hurt their feelings. That's no reason we should prevent voters from having that information," Mr. Van Hollen said.
"I found it a little curious that McConnell said efforts for disclosure were part of a radical left wing agenda. ... A few years ago, he was the guy saying we should be providing more, not less disclosure," Mr. Van Hollen said. "These are American values. Republicans, Democrats, independents recognize it's important to a healthy democracy."
Mr. Van Hollen won one victory in court after he sued the Federal Election Commission over a loophole that allowed donors to groups running ads known as electioneering communications to evade disclosure. Opponents said revealing the identity of the person exercising his First Amendment right to speech amounts to telling him not to speak.
"Van Hollen wants to disclose their speech to discourage them from speaking. After the court decision there has not been a single electioneering communication," said Jason Torchinsky, a campaign finance lawyer and former Republican National Committee official.
Others questioned the motivations of someone who would do something in secret but stop if it would be detected by others.
"If you're not doing anything wrong, why wouldn't you want it known?" asked Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center
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