First and Foremost: Find the Money

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Now we know—with only a few exceptions—the results of the 2010 midterms in terms of who’s in and who’s out. But what we may never know is amount of access and influence contributors to shadow political campaigns now have to those who were elected. And unless a robust political spending disclosure bill is enacted, we never will. That is why, first and foremost, Sunlight will be working with the new Congress to pass a targeted disclosure bill that will disinfect the corrupting influence secret political money has on our democracy.

This election season, companies, unions and wealthy individuals have laundered almost $200 million dollars through outside groups to spend on campaign activity, including ubiquitous negative TV ads. (That figure doesn’t even include spending by the political parties themselves.) Their generosity was fueled not by civic duty, but by a legislative agenda that will be energetically pursued by lobbyists. While visiting the offices of the newly elected or re-elected, those lobbyists will remind the politicians of their clients’ financial support for their election bids. But here’s the problem; while the lobbyists will be ready and willing to share the names and interests of donors who funneled six or seven digit sums through sham nonprofit organizations and Super PACs, you and I will never have access to that information.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In the Citizens United case that contributed to the current mess, the Court upheld disclaimer and disclosure requirements by an 8 to 1 vote. On Monday, the Court refused to hear arguments in Keating v. FEC, thereby upholding a lower court decision requiring Independent Expenditure Only Committees, or Super PACs, to disclose their donors. It’s time to sweep aside any pretense that disclosure and disclaimer rules are unconstitutional and instead focus on getting a robust transparency law enacted.

Despite the failure to pass the DISCLOSE Act before the midterms, Congress must quickly revisit this issue of disclosure of third party spending so that voters know who is paying for campaign ads in 2012. The DISCLOSE Act contained provisions that went beyond pure transparency measures. In the end, such measures probably didn’t destroy the bill’s chances of being passed, but they certainly didn’t help. Now, we have incontrovertible evidence that secret campaign contributions will influence our elections. Preventing future corruption is too important for Members from either party to weigh down a bill with extraneous provisions. A streamlined, focused disclosure bill must at the top of Congress’s must-pass list.

We can’t follow the money if we can’t find it. Any member of Congress who supported DISCLOSE, anyone who has ever called for any degree of greater government transparency, and anyone who was elected through calls to “take back our government” (in this case, from the hands of secret, wealthy special interests) should be willing to hit the ground running with a bill that precisely focuses on disclosure while uncovering all the sources secret spending so they won’t be secret anymore.

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  • Yes, Republicans have played a positive role in the past for campaign finance reform. However, who do we have after the new leadership takes over in the US House and as the US Senate resumes? In 1998?, US Senator Christopher Shays (R-CT) left office. In yesterday’s election, US Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) lost his re-election bid. And, US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is an unknown presently, given his recent movement to causes of the right. These three senators were some of the very few leaders of campaign finance reform in the Senate.
    The legislation over the DISCLOSE Act will be a defining moment for the USA. Will we see the present system’s dangers for what they are, or will we assume internationally a more rogue nation status of high levels of government corruption? The USA’s international leadership has now been questioned.