President Bush wants to mount a frontal assault on Washington's biggest money issues: retiree benefits, trial lawyer verdicts and the federal income tax. There isn't anyone or any organization that doesn't care deeply about one or more of them. The legislative battles will be massive if the president ever manages to get them off the ground.
The funders of those important fights, however, will for the most part remain shielded from public view. Using perfectly legal means, the groups that plan to bankroll Bush's initiatives and those trying to prevent them from becoming law won't say who their donors are or how much they've given.
That's not the way it ought to be. Politicians have acknowledged for decades that efforts to influence government aren't supposed to be secret. In 1946, Congress passed the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, which demanded that lobbyists report the amount and sources of their income both from direct lobbying and from grass-roots style, or indirect lobbying, as well.
The idea back then, still a good one today, was that citizens deserved to know who shaped the laws they lived by.
But little by little the rich-and-therefore-powerful forces that had the most to gain or lose economically whittled away the good intentions behind the lobbying act. In 1954, the already loophole-ridden statute was rendered even more porous by the Supreme Court decision United States v. Harriss. The court narrowed the types of lobbyists who needed to disclose their activities and the sources of their cash. Indirect lobbying was exempted entirely.
Four years later, the Supreme Court in NAACP v. Alabama decided that the anti-segregationist organization could keep its membership lists private. That was certainly the right thing to do. But by protecting nonprofit groups like the NAACP from mandatory disclosure, the court also opened the door to wholesale concealment of would-be public policy manipulators.
As a columnist and reporter, I like more disclosure rather than less. And, happily, recent lobbying laws have shed additional light on the process. In 1995, the definition of lobbying was expanded and lobbyists were required to disclose who their clients were, what issues they were pushing and how much they were being paid.
Clearly, though, more and more groups have found ways around these restrictions and are operating in the shadows while also spending large sums on weighty matters.
Take Social Security, Bush's domestic priority. Each side of the private accounts debate has established gigantic coalitions to raise and spend millions. They've put up newspaper, TV and Internet ads. They've scheduled local media interviews with "experts" around visits by the president. And they've arranged supposedly spontaneous outpourings of support (or opposition) at lawmakers' town hall meetings.
Who pays for all this? Nobody knows for sure and that's the way the pressurers like it.