Sen. McConnell: Political Donations Are Free Speech

Sunday was the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in — the opening act in a wide-ranging, White House scandal that was fueled by secret campaign money. Last week, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said it's time to roll back the Watergate-era requirement for public disclosure of campaign donors. He accused President Obama and liberals of trying to stifle the First Amendment rights of conservative donors.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Watergate break-in happened 40 years ago yesterday. Men working for the reelection of President Nixon burglarized offices of the Democratic Party. The investigation of that break-in uncovered a range of abuses, including abuses of campaign money, and lead to Nixon's resignation. It also prompted the passage of new campaign finance laws. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell now says it's time for some of those laws to go.

McConnell especially questions the ban on secret contributions, which he says stifles free speech. Some donors already avoid disclosure, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Tens of millions of undisclosed dollars are flowing into the presidential race, and here's one measure of just how much: In six weeks this spring, so-called social welfare organizations on the Republican side were able to outspend presumptive nominee Mitt Romney's own campaign on TV more than five to one. The media blitz was completely financed by anonymous donors. Speaking at the venerable conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, Senator McConnell said this kind of anonymity is good for democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: That's the whole point of my speech today. We don't need the government micromanaging in this country who gets to speak and who doesn't.

OVERBY: And he compared the Obama administration with the Watergate administration of Richard Nixon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCCONNELL: We don't need the government targeting people. We don't need the administration - this is not the first administration - some of us are old enough to remember the Nixon administration making up enemies lists, using the power of the government to go after people, to shut them up, to sit them down.

OVERBY: Allegations like these are at the forefront of a conservative drive to undermine and roll back the transparency laws for political money. The effort picked up energy in 2010, when the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and other legal developments made it possible for seven and eight-figure contributions to directly influence federal elections. Up till then, Republicans, including McConnell, had embraced full disclosure as they argued against contribution limits. Here's McConnell on NPR's TALK OF THE NATION in 2003.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

MCCONNELL: Money is essential in politics, and not something that we should feel squeamish about, provided the donations are limited and disclosed, everyone knows who's supporting everyone else.

OVERBY: But there was a nuance. Last week, he made it clear that disclosure roles should only cover donors to candidates and parties, and not the outside groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCCONNELL: I don't think everybody else in the country ought to have to pay that price as a condition for speaking out and being involved in causes that they feel strongly about.

OVERBY: Fred Wertheimer is an advocate for campaign finance disclosure and limits. He says McConnell is wrong to suggest that the constitutionality of mandatory disclosure is up for grabs.

FRED WERTHEIMER: Up until 2010, for 35 years, there was a consensus among Democrats and Republicans alike that campaign finance disclosure was the essential element of campaign finance laws.

OVERBY: And he cites a conservative hero, Justice Antonin Scalia.

WERTHEIMER: Justice Scalia said requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.

OVERBY: McConnell said this is one place where he and Scalia part ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCCONNELL: I don't think that regular citizens should have to experience any political courage at all.

OVERBY: The Supreme Court endorsed disclosure in Citizens United. Only one justice, Clarence Thomas, dissented. McConnell said he agrees with Thomas. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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