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Shape-shifting on campaign finance

May 5, 2014 - By Mark Shields

To be fair, most Republicans have never hidden their distaste for campaign-finance laws that place limits on how much someone can give to a political candidate or campaign, or how much the candidate or the campaign can spend.

The reform most consistently championed by Republicans and conservative editorial pages has instead been support for complete and timely disclosure of all campaign contributions and spending.

And the GOP made a pretty good case in favor of transparency. The 1996 party platform called for "true reform" to be defined as "requiring full and immediate disclosure of all contributions."

Invoking that year's nominee, the 2000 platform spoke of "Governor (George W.) Bush's agenda for more honest and open politics" that would "require full and timely disclosure on the Internet of all campaign contributions so that the media and the public can immediately know who is giving how much to whom."

The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal has long advocated a trade-off of "disclosing political contributions as part of a larger deregulation that allowed any American to give as much as he wants to any candidate."

Proving he is no Johnny-come-lately to the reform cause, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote in a home-state paper in 1997, "Public disclosure of campaign contributions and spending should be expedited so voters can judge for themselves what is appropriate."

That's it: the voters. The ordinary citizens who are now sentenced by Supreme Court decisions to watch helplessly (fewer than a half of 1 percent of the nation's adults make political contributions of $200 or more) as anonymous oligarchs and unidentified corporations reach into their deep pockets and seek to buy more national elections.

Our fundamental American sense of fair play demands that voters be able to "immediately know who is giving how much to whom."

In making their decisions, voters need to know who is bankrolling the candidates for Congress as well as who is underwriting the TV commercials attacking their home-state senators. In 2012, the President Barack Obama-affiliated Priorities USA Action, with no requirement to reveal its donors, raised and spent $65 million -- all of it in attack ads against Mitt Romney.

But shed no tears for Mitt. The Romney-affiliated Restore Our Future collected $142 million (Lord knows from whom, but no American civilians do) and spent approximately 85 percent of it attacking the opposition.

Freer and fuller access to information might have helped avoid the Wall Street financial crisis. It would certainly have put the chill on insider trading and it can only help Americans make more-informed decisions about to whom and to what the candidate who seeks their precious votes could be beholden.

But wait, conservative support for full disclosure has disappeared. Just last week, The Wall Street Journal went looking and miraculously found "another reason to rethink our views on campaign-finance disclosure laws." Comparing the call -- which The Journal had long endorsed -- to make public the contributions of billionaires, such as those of the Koch brothers and George Soros, to "how Southern racists tried to subpoena NAACP membership lists for intimidation purposes in the Jim Crow era" qualifies as a new high, or low, in the rewriting of history.

The new, unimproved Republican position on campaign-finance disclosure is, "Never heard of it." Gone without a trace from the party platform.

Bluntly put, it's the 1 percent's country, and whoever in the 1 percent wants to write a check to, anonymously, destroy an unfriendly incumbent or elect an accommodating challenger, it's nobody's business except the purchaser and the purchased.

If hypocrisy were a felony, on the issue of campaign-finance disclosure alone, these shape-shifters would be doing hard time.

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Editor's note: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields is a former Marine who appears regularly on "Newshour" on PBS.

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