Disclosure vs. Systemic Reform: A False Choice


In a column in The Hill Meredith McGehee sets up a strawman — that disclosure will solve all the problems of the money and influence culture — and then tries to knock it down. (She never mentions who the current advocates are for that position, actually.) But it seems to me that every time she tries to makes her point she makes the opposite one. The most salutary change made in recent years, e.g. a ban on soft money, would not have occurred without disclosure, however inadequate and slow it was.

Of course, disclosure alone won’t cure the system of its ills. Who would believe that? But what will? Surely full public financing would go along way toward that end, but until the political will is marshaled to make that happen here in Washington (it’s already the law in Conn ecticut, Maine and Arizona)  we need to know more about what lawmakers and lobbyists are up to — faster, more comprehensively, and in searchable formats that are available on the Internet. Human nature being what it is, it will certainly make lawmakers more cautious. Who knows? Maybe it will stop some of the worst practices.

Sunlight believes that information is power, particularly when in the hands of citizens. (I’d bet Dennis Hastert does too.) And disclosure in the 21st century should be far more effective than ever before because now disclosure should mean electronic filing of all reports, presented in searchable online databases, available 24/7. The power of new technologies to mash data makes connecting the dots even more viable. And this kind of disclosure makes it even easier for the press and citizens to do their job to follow the money.

Will disclosure solve all the problems? No, but while the hard work of groups like Public Campaign and Common Cause, and the PIRGS, Public Citizen and others goes on to push for systemic changes in campaign finance and lobbying reforms, I’ll take my lead from Justice Brandeis any day.