Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse was out on the hustings this week promoting his DISCLOSE Act, which would require the sort of independent political groups playing an outsize role in the presidential election to report on who is bankrolling their operations.
It is, plainly, a good bit of public policy. Voters should know who is peddling what. And it's a shame that Senate Republicans blocked a vote on the measure — once on Monday and again on Tuesday.
But disclosure, in the end, isn't nearly enough.
There is, perhaps, no more telling indicator of its inadequacy than its strange political career. It was not so long ago, after all, that the GOP embraced disclosure as campaign finance reform lite — an alternative to calls for sharper limits on political spending.
Indeed, the Senate passed a law quite similar to Whitehouse's bill by a 92-6 margin in 2000. Fourteen Republican senators who voted for that measure are still in the Senate today; their opposition to the DISCLOSE Act was uniform.
Democrats have held firm in their support for the idea. But their trying-hard-to-sound-ethusiastic statements in support of the DISCLOSE Act acknowledge it is a de minimis response to the problem of big money in politics.
The court has crushed our democracy by unleashing torrents of corporate cash through the Citizens United decision, Congressional Democrats seem to suggest, and all we can do now is let the public know who, exactly, is buying off their leaders.
The frame, here, is all wrong.
Invoking Citizens United may be a smart bit of pr — the mere mention of the decision can get a certain breed of wonky, overeducated liberal in a lather — but the case is not the watershed that some suggest.
The truth is, big money donors have been able corrupt the political process for decades. In the 1990s, it was huge "soft money" contributions to the Democratic and Republican parties. And when the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law stamped out that practice, the money flowed into independent political groups — groups that don't look all that different from what we have post-Citizens United.
In the 2004 presidential election, remember, it was liberal billionaire George Soros versus the big-money backers of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Yes, the money pouring into independent political organizations is growing at a staggering pace. But as Matt Bai pointed out in a recent piece in The New York Times Magazine, the growth was evident prior to Citizens United.
And the conservatives writing the big checks this time around have a motivation that eclipses any Supreme Court edict: the first sitting Democratic president in the age of the independent expenditure.
The point, here, is that the problem of money in politics runs deeper than Citizens United. And while disclosure would make for a nice incremental step, incrementalism is inadequate — both as salve and as politics.
Disclosure will never grip the public imagination, will never force the Republicans' hand. And even bolder campaign finance reform, if framed as campaign finance reform, will make the eyes glaze.
What we need is public financing of campaigns and limits on independent spending, the latter requiring a constitutional amendment. And it's got to be sold by a bi-partisan, grassroots campaign willing to drop the wonkese and say something colorful and irreverent that can mobilize voters.
I'm picturing, to start, 10,000 billboards with an image of a Wall Streeter passing cash to a politician: "They Bought Washington, Let's Buy it Back." There are probably a dozen RISD students who could come up with a better idea in an afternoon. Get to work, I say. Whatever you come up is sure to be an improvement over what we've got now.