Mitch McConnell Is Either Very Bad at Math or Horribly Disingenuous

The Senate minority leader took me to task on Friday. Unfortunately, he had his facts wrong on virtually every count.

Last Friday morning, I attended a ballyhooed speech given by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at AEI, where I am a resident scholar, titled "Washington's Ongoing Assault on Free Speech." After he finished, McConnell took questions, and I immediately raised my hand. It took a while, but he finally recognized me, and when I got up, before I had asked anything -- well, let's go to the transcript:

MCCONNELL: I've enjoyed dueling you, Norm, over the years. You've been consistently wrong on almost everything. I've always wondered, you know, who eats lunch with you over here at this organization?

ORNSTEIN: I've got more friends than you think here, Senator. And...

MCCONNELL: Actually, some of the worst things that have been said about me over the years have been said by Norm Ornstein. And you've been entirely wrong on virtually every occasion. I'm glad to see you. What's on your mind?

I had two questions, asked very politely, for the senator. The first one was this:

"In 2000, on Meet the Press, you gave a full-throated and eloquent defense of disclosure, the money quote being, 'Why is a little disclosure better than a lot of disclosure?' In the Citizens United decision, we had justices, eight justices, including Roberts, Scalia, and Alito all give an equally full-throated defense of disclosure of all sorts, including explicitly to shareholders to know what their companies were doing in the political front. Why is ..."

McConnell stopped me there and said: "Of course, that's not accurate. But they didn't say as a matter of constitutional interpretation. I'm sure that if we passed a statute, they probably wouldn't strike it down. But that was left to us.

"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."

So let's see how consistent McConnell has been. It is true that in the past he went beyond rhetorical support for disclosure of all sorts. In fact, as the Lexington Herald-Leader has noted, in 1990, McConnell "pledged to introduce a bill that would require full disclosure of donors to multi-candidate political action committees." In 1996, "McConnell supported public disclosure of all election-related spending, including spending by independent groups and contributions to political parties." In 1997, McConnell published an op-ed in the Herald-Leader, writing, "Public disclosure of campaign contributions and spending should be expedited so voters can judge for themselves what is appropriate."

In June 2000, in the Meet the Press segment I mentioned in my question to him, McConnell said, "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?"

In 2007, in another op-ed in the Herald-Leader, McConnell supported an amendment to an ethics bill because it "would require organizations filing complaints before the Senate Ethics Committee to disclose their donors so the public could have more transparency."

Let's see now, 1990 was ... carry the two, 23 years ago. 1996 was 17 years ago. 2000 was 13 years ago. (What about 2007? Of course, it was about donors to groups challenging senators' ethics, not for campaign-related donors. But McConnell's whole rationale for now opposing disclosure is that it can be used to punish the donors -- so punishment is OK if you are challenging the ethics of McConnell or his colleagues, but verboten if you are contributing to American Crossroads GPS? Hmm.) In any case, each of these examples is less than 25 years ago. Some are a lot less. I don't know if McConnell has problems with basic arithmetic or was just being disingenuous. I just report. You decide.

Presented by

Norm Ornstein is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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