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A New Regime Required For Disclosure

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As most of you know I have a long history in the campaign finance field as a founder of two organizations – one which is the nation’s première money and politics data crunching organization and a nonprofit that pioneered the concept of a system of full public financing. So it was with some substantial interest that I reviewed (and yes, I admit with horror) the results of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgate for corporate and union spending in elections. If the sheer size of corporate bank accounts is any indicator, we will soon see just how much money can buy in the political arena.

Or will we? That is the critical question that must be addressed. Without an immediate update to the disclosure laws — covering everything from who has to disclose, what is required to be disclosed, how often, and in what form — the public will be unable to see this new spending as it occurs, nor how corporations and unions pour money into the many other pockets of a politician's coat. Without vastly improved disclosure, we won’t be able to understand the new play of forces in Washington. Lobbyists, as well as top officials for corporations and unions, will have a new kind of leverage over politicians. The only deterrent to widespread arm-twisting of public representatives by private interests—short of a constitutional amendment reversing the Court’s ruling, or major changes in how campaigns are financed—may well be the requirement that such arm-twisting be disclosed in a timely manner. Clearly, now more than ever, our entire system of public disclosure of election-related contributions and expenditures needs to be upgraded to keep pace with the influences it is designed to track. And in the 21st century this means that everything must be filed online, in real time. Whatever one may think about the Citizens United underlying argument concerning the First Amendment and campaign finance law, there is a small ray of hope to the ruling, which is the near unanimous support on the Court for robust political disclosure rules. The majority opinion in Citizens observed that the Internet is becoming the best way to hold politicians and influencers accountable, allowing citizens to judge political speech and government action on their own terms.  But in our view, the Court majority is being a bit too optimistic about the current state of political disclosure. For online transparency to perform the function ascribed to it by the Citizens United ruling, Congress has to create new laws that reflect both the new reality of expanded independent spending to influence politics, as well as the existing array of money-driven influences on public officials.

In addition, we must take into account the new realities of our 24/7 world and insist that disclosure move as fast as influence: if a lobbyist can book a meeting with a Congressman and get an earmark inserted into a bill on a Monday, the fact of that meeting, its topic, and the result should all be reported by Tuesday. There is no longer any technical reason why all the players involved in making decisions in our nation’s Capitol, from lobbyists to staff to Members of Congress and government regulators, can't report online, on a 24-hour basis, their interactions. Lobbyists for foreign governments and government officials overseeing the securities industry already report such contacts in rich and timely detail; that disclosure regime needs to be expanded to Congress as well. Otherwise, and in the face of what Citizens United has now unleashed, our existing disclosure regime will be as useful as a having a video camera that records a robbery at a bank ATM machine, but whose tape can’t be accessed for three to six months after the fact.

Sunlight has now prepared some detailed recommendations to this end and John, our policy director, will be posting later today on the specifics of Sunlight’s proposals. We’d really welcome your feedback and your ideas. Please leave them in the comments.