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A Grand Bargain on Campaign Finance Reform?

The flood of political spending, coupled with the likely defeat of campaign finance hero Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), is making the elections a pretty grim spectacle for campaign finance advocates, but The Wall Street Journal opinion page is feeling positively giddy:

As for the rest of us, we can celebrate what with any luck is the death of campaign-finance reform and the revival of more robust political competition. Thirty-five years after it began in the wake of Watergate, the liberal crusade to limit campaign spending has proven once again to be a hopeless failure.

In the spirit of charity (or the fact that many campaign finance laws are still on the books and don’t look to be in any danger of being struck down by the courts), however, the Journal is willing to offer the reform community something of a grand bargain that entails striking down all campaign finance limits and the Federal Election Commission in exchange for full disclosure:

These columns have long supported disclosing political contributions as part of a larger deregulation that allowed any American to give as much as he wants to any candidate. This is the Virginia model and it works well, as it did at the national level for decades before the goo-goos got into the act. Lately, however, as we’ve watched Democrats and liberals attack Target Corp. and other businesses for donating to independent groups, we wonder if even disclosure is wise. But as the price for a wholesale repeal of all campaign-finance limits and putting the Federal Election Commission out of business, we’re willing to compromise.

So how about it, goo-goos? Your standard bearer on Capitol Hill looks like a goner, and the Supreme Court has rightly gutted your schemes to limit political money as a violation of the First Amendment. John McCain is still around, but we doubt any Republicans will be foolish enough to follow him again down this primrose path. Accept the fact that money can’t be purged from politics, and we’ll even give you something in return for admitting reality.

It’s a nice offer, sort of, but it ignores two realities. The first is that the Supreme Court just yesterday rejected an appeal from the conservative group SpeechNow.org, which sought to limit the scope of what it had to disclose to the FEC about its donors and activities. The decision was consistent with other opinions offered by the Roberts court — including Citizens United — which indicate that full and prompt disclosure is both constitutional and desirable, so it seems strange that Democrats would feel the need to trade anything for the cause.

The second, sadder reality is that while the Journal still appears to (tepidly) endorse the concept of disclosure, recent Senate votes on the DISCLOSE Act indicate that every single Senate Republican has abandoned it. Several GOP Senators, of course, have indicated that their objections to the bill lay not in disclosure but in its smaller provisions — like the one limiting the speech of large government contractors — which they say provide an unfair advantage to unions in election contests.

It’s for this reason that the reform community is getting increasingly vocal about Democrats trying to pass a stripped-down, disclosure-only bill during the lame duck session. In doing so, they either can get their desired disclosure (without trading anything) or force Republicans in the Senate to cast a vote on whether they still think transparency is a good idea after all.

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