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Published: Thursday, 7/19/2012

GUEST EDITORIAL

Power of anonymity

Two years ago, Congress came within a single Republican vote in the Senate of following the Supreme Court's advice to require broad disclosure of campaign finance donors. The justices wanted voters to be able to decide for themselves "whether elected officials are 'in the pocket' of so-called moneyed interests."

The court advised such disclosure in its otherwise disastrous Citizens United decision in 2010, which loosed a new wave of unlimited spending on political campaigns. The decision's anticorruption prescription has grown even more compelling as hundreds of millions of dollars in disguise have flooded the 2012 campaigns. A great deal of it is washed through groups that are set up for the particular purpose of hiding the names of the writers of enormous checks.

The ability to follow the money has never been this important since the bagman days of the Watergate scandal. But when the Democratic Senate majority made a fresh attempt to enact a disclosure bill this week, the measure was immediately filibustered to death by Republicans, like other versions.

Still, the vote was a chance for the public to see who stands for and against basic transparency in political spending. Not one Republican showed the courage to break ranks and speak up for disclosure.

Republicans have been the main beneficiaries of corporate and independent spending sprees. The party's lock-step opposition to letting voters see who writes the big checks is an embarrassment to Congress.

Opponents are crying that disclosure violates donors' privacy and favors unions. This is election-year nonsense to give cover to the aggressively partisan groups that pose as "social welfare" organizations, but tip the campaign scales heavily with stealth financing.

The Senate measure would require corporations, unions, and any other organization that pays for election-cycle messages to disclose expenditures of $10,000 or more within 24 hours and identify donors writing checks of $10,000 or more. It would further require reporting of third-party money transfers, a shadow device to hide contributors.

The measure's chief sponsor, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), has tried to win Republican support by eliminating a provision requiring that the top five donors be identified at the end of election commercials. But Republicans turned their backs -- including John McCain, once the great champion of campaign finance reform, who has predicted that "huge scandals" will inevitably flow from Citizens United.

Voters who are concerned about the big-money distortion of politics now know precisely who put the issue quietly to bed.

-- New York Times



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