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Sen. McConnell: Political Donations Are Free Speech


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.