Citizens United Response, Part 1 – Independent Expenditures

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As Ellen noted last Friday, we’ve crafted an agenda in response to the Citizens United decision, setting up the disclosure requirements necessary to give citizens the ability to track how money can now influence our politics.

I’ll be blogging on what we’ve identified, and inviting your response in the comments. Today, I’m starting with number one on our list:

Create a Powerful Independent Expenditure Reporting System

In its simplest form, the Citizens United decision reversed a ban on independent expenditures from corporations and unions. To understand what that means, a great place to start is the FEC’s now-outdated explanatory page on independent expenditures and coordinated communications. I’ll excerpt here, since the page will be changing soon:

Independent Expenditures

An independent expenditure is an expenditure for a communication “expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate that is not made in cooperation, consultation, or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, a candidate’s authorized committee, or their agents, or a political party or its agents.” 11 CFR 100.16(a).

Who May Make Independent Expenditures

Persons permitted to make contributions in connection with federal elections (such as individuals and political committees) may make independent expenditures. Persons prohibited from making contributions or expenditures in connection with federal elections (such as corporations, labor organizations and individuals or businesses with federal government contracts) are similarly prohibited from making independent expenditures. However, there is one exception to this rule.

What we’re reading here is carefully prepared guidance, which cite regulations, and which are empowered through laws enacted by Congress and signed by the President. Citizens United does away with parts of all three. Since there isn’t a disclosure requirement in place yet for a practice that wasn’t permitted until now, that requirement must be created.

That’s our first step.

Since these new expenditures could have an enormous effect on the ideas and messages that the public and politicians receive, our first step is to arm them with knowledge about political spending that is occurring. The public needs this information so that we can evaluate advertisements, similar messages, and the actions of corporations, unions, and others. Similarly, politicians and government officials need this information so that they can understand who is trying to influence them.

This first element of our proposal contains a number of individual ideas. I’d be happy to flesh them out in more detail in the comments.

Our goal with this first section, however, is simple: to require the new political spending unleashed by Citizens United to be publicly disclosed, to the FEC, in the most meaningful way we there is — in real time, online, and with enough detail to understand what’s really happening.

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