American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman J. Ornstein was publicly upbraided by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell last week. This week, Ornstein responded, suggesting delicately that McConnell is a shameless liar.
The key issue is Ornstein's contention that McConnell claimed for years to support public disclosure of campaign contributions. Then, roughly around the time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 to allow unlimited donations from labor unions and corporations, McConnell concluded that secret donations are absolutely essential to First Amendment protection.
In the course of calling Ornstein "consistently wrong," here is what McConnell said last week:
With regard to disclosure, you'd have to go back to the 1980s to find the time when I suggested -- and I did, and I was wrong about it, and I've been correct for 25 years now. I don't know how far back you have to go. You have to go back to the 1980s to find the time that I suggested that disclosure of 501(c)4's was a good idea. I made a mistake. I was wrong. I've been consistent for 25 years.
It's possible, given his profession, that McConnell has convinced himself that he really did oppose disclosure for 25 years. But Republicans changed positions on disclosure so recently, 2010, and in such a blatantly expedient manner, that it's far easier to believe he knows he's not telling the truth.
Here is McConnell on Meet the Press on June 18, 2000:
Republicans are in favor of disclosure. There’s a serious constitutional question, whether you can require people engaged in what’s called issue advocacy to disclose. But if you’re going to do that, and the Senate voted to do that, and I’m prepared to go down that road, then it needs to be meaningful disclosure, Tim. 527s are just a handful of groups. We need to have real disclosure. And so what we ought to do is broaden the disclosure to include at least labor unions and tax-exempt business associations and trial lawyers so that you include the major political players in America. Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?
McConnell was hardly an outlier in his party. Witness:
Speaker of the House John Boehner: “I think what we ought to do is we ought to have full disclosure, full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant.” (NBC, “Meet the Press” transcript, Feb. 11, 2007)
Majority Leader Eric Cantor: “Anything that moves us back towards that notion of transparency and real-time reporting of donations and contributions I think would be a helpful move towards restoring confidence of voters.” (Newsweek, “SCOTUS Ruling Spells Disaster for Political Transparency,” Jan. 21, 2010)
House Whip Kevin McCarthy: “I think people should disclose. I have no problem with disclosing information. And it should be that way.” (National Public Radio, Sept. 23, 2010)
Senator Jeff Sessions: “I don’t like it when a large source of money is out there funding ads and is unaccountable. To the extent we can, I tend to favor disclosure.” (The Hill, “Campaign finance bill has GOP wary,” April 22, 2010)
Senator John Cornyn: “I think the system needs more transparency, so people can more easily reach their own conclusions.” (McClatchy Newspapers, “What do both parties have in common? Wall Street donations,” April 25, 2010)
Senate Republicans voted unanimously in July 2012 to block the Disclose Act, which would have required disclosure of political donations of more than $10,000 within 24 hours of the money being spent. McConnell, who once asked how a little disclosure could possibly be better than a lot of disclosure, led the charge for no disclosure at all.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)