Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might have to send Joaquin Castro a bouquet of flowers.
Republicans, never missing an opportunity for feigned outrage, are pounding the table in indignation; Donald Trump Jr. even said on “Fox & Friends”: “That list sort of screams like the Dayton, Ohio, shooter’s list, right?”
Of course it doesn’t. But it is problematic, not least because I can promise you that before long, McConnell will be using this mini-controversy as justification to craft a political system with unlimited, anonymous contributions, where politicians can be bought and sold and the public has no idea about any of it.
We’ll get back to McConnell in a moment, but let’s begin with some important context. In our system, contributions to candidates are a matter of public record. You can go to the website of the Federal Election Commission and see who has donated to any candidate for federal office, including all the presidential candidates. You can search by individual donor names, or Zip codes, or employers.
And reporters regularly write stories using these data to explore who might be influencing officeholders, which is why the disclosure exists in the first place: Having the information public makes it harder for contributions to be an avenue for corruption.
Nevertheless, Republicans have a point in criticizing Castro in this case, whether they’re doing it in bad faith or not. The people he called out weren’t megadonors such as Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers; they were San Antonians who had given $2,800 to the Trump reelection campaign. While I might agree with the assertion that anyone who does that should be ashamed of themselves, to have a public official use his Twitter feed to call them out could make them potential targets for harassment. I’m sure that if a Republican congressman had done the same thing with donors to Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), liberals would have said that was his intention.
On the other hand, as Lindsay Beyerstein points out, the argument conservatives use for allowing contributions by corporations and others is that “money equals speech.” If that’s the case, she says, “the person who gives the maximum allowable campaign contribution is standing in the public square, screaming their head off. There’s no reason not to name them.”
In any case, McConnell is probably pleased as punch today. Because he’ll use this episode to justify moves toward his ultimate goal of a system where the wealthy can give as much to candidates as they want, with zero disclosure.
Through most of his career, McConnell has insisted that what American elections need is more money, not less. But for years, especially in the 1990s, he advocated more disclosure, even co-sponsoring legislation that would have made more information about contributions available to the public.
But when he was saying we needed more disclosure, he was presenting it as an alternative to the reforms being offered at that time, most of which centered on limits to contributions, especially by outside groups. His argument then was that we shouldn’t be restricting the amount of money that wealthy individuals and corporations shower on candidates, because corruption could be prevented by disclosure; let them contribute as much as they want, and as long as we know who they are, there will be no opportunity for undue influence.
It was a dubious argument at best, and there’s almost no chance that McConnell, quite possibly the most cynical politician in American history, meant it for a second. But it was useful.
Things changed, however, when the Supreme Court said in the Citizens United decision that outside groups and corporations could spend as much as they want on campaigns, which quite predictably led to an explosion of outside campaign spending. There are still limits on direct contributions to campaigns, but they’re of much less importance when a corporation can spend millions on advertising and organizing on behalf of candidates. And they can do it through nonprofit organizations that don’t have to reveal their donors.
Democrats have introduced legislation to change that, which McConnell has fought with all his considerable might. The man who used to claim that disclosure would solve corruption now says that disclosure of donors whose identities are now secret poses terrifying threats to freedom of speech and raises the specter of harassment. What’s to stop him from making the same argument about direct contributions?
In truth, McConnell has been consistent: Whatever limits and regulations on campaign finance are being debated, he’s against them. At some point in the future, he might advocate for removing caps on direct contributions to candidates. After all, he might say, people can already give unlimited contributions through outside groups, so why not cut out the middleman? As long as we know who’s giving how much, it’ll be fine. He might then say that we really should get rid of those pesky disclosure requirements, because don’t you remember when that mean Castro tweeted the names of people who had given to Trump? The only solution is to have no limits and no disclosure.
Then we’ll all be free. Or at least some of us will.