Shine a light on political donations

Here’s a simple idea that both parties should agree on: disclosure. Anybody who contributes money to influence an election — corporations, unions, advocacy groups, individuals — should be required to tell voters what they’re doing. Then they can be held accountable for their actions.

Nothing in Washington is simple, however, or free from partisan wrangling. Current law contains a huge loophole. Millions of dollars in anonymous donations are flooding the campaign landscape. But Republican filibusters have blocked every legislative attempt to close that breach.

Almost 99 years ago, Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “Sunlight is ... the best of disinfectants.” He was right then and he is right now, yet every day his wisdom is being trashed. The result is a scandal waiting to happen.

After Watergate, a wave of revulsion and reform strictly limited individual contributions to campaigns (corporations and unions had long been barred from financing candidates) and required public disclosure of those donations.

Then the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case allowed unlimited donations from any source to so-called super PACs, which could participate in elections as long as they did not directly “coordinate” their efforts with the campaigns they were supporting. The rule is a fraud, of course; there’s plenty of coordination, but at least the super PACs have to reveal their supporters.



But money in politics is like water: It finds the cracks in any law, and the smart folks in both parties are using a provision of the tax code called 501(c)(4) to wedge open those cracks. Under this clause, organizations devoted mainly to “social welfare” can spend money on campaigns as long as politics is not their primary purpose. And they do not have to reveal their donors to anyone.

The whole system is sneaky, shadowy and downright un-American. If a coal company contributes to a candidate who opposes clean-air rules, voters deserve to know that. If a teachers union tries to defeat a legislator who wants to restrict its bargaining rights, that should be public, too.

Sen. Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who has sponsored legislation to close this loophole, got it right when he said, “All we’re saying is that if you attack us, put your name on the ad.”

That bill, called the Disclose Act, passed the House in 2010 but was blocked in the Senate. A stripped-down version has been reintroduced in this Congress, but Republican leaders remain adamantly opposed, and for an obvious reason. Republicans raise far more secret money than the Democrats and have far more to hide.

One example: Crossroads GPS, a “social welfare” organization inspired by GOP strategist Karl Rove, is currently financing a $25 million ad campaign against Democrats in swing states. Under any plausible definition of politics, this is a clear attempt to influence the election, yet Crossroads GPS hides behind the law and releases no information about its supporters.

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, argues that any attempt to force disclosure would be “limiting the right of Americans to speak up.” As he recently wrote in USA Today: “My concern is that selective disclosure would be used to harass people — think President Nixon and his ‘enemies list’ — who have participated in the political process or scare others from doing so.”

His reasoning makes no sense. No one is for restricting free speech, and the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that money is a form of speech. But the essence of free speech, and democracy, is openness and accountability. McConnell gets it exactly wrong. Nixon raised secret funds to silence his opponents. The lesson of Watergate is not that less information should be provided about campaign money, but more. Let in the light.

Right now the law is a mess, a charade. The notion that Crossroads GPS (or any similar group on either side) is a “social welfare” organization, exempt from campaign rules, is totally absurd. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently made that point in a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission, but the FEC is worthless when it comes to enforcing its own rules, and the Internal Revenue Service seems uninterested in the whole subject.

Many individuals and organizations contribute to campaigns as an investment. They are buying influence, access, a seat at the table. The Citizens United decision is unfortunate, because it gives wealthy interests too loud a voice in our politics. But as long as it is the law, those interests should be identified. Corporations and unions, do-gooders and do-badders, Hollywood liberals and Wall Street conservatives. Everybody.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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