It’s axiomatic that the Sunlight Foundation believes transparency can deter corruption, foster accountability and increase the public’s participation in government. But that is not to say that in all cases transparency alone is sufficient to ensure a cleaner, fairer democracy. That is why it is troubling when people in the position of shaping public debate blithely remark that contribution limits should be tossed out in exchange for greater transparency.
David Axelrod, the president’s former top strategist and newly minted NBC pundit did just that through a series of tweets. As compiled by Politico, Axelrod tweeted, “Campaign finance system is a mess. Limits have just created a cottage industry for lawyers who devise schemes to circumvent them. Too much money in politics. But if it’s inevitable, let it flow directly to candidates and demand full disclosure, with stiff penalties. And end the SuperPac and faux SuperPac game that too often allows donors to elude detection and candidates to deny responsibility.”
Too much money in politics. But if it’s inevitable, let it flow directly to candidates and demand full disclosure, with stiff penalties.2/3
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) February 20, 2013
Exchanging candidates’ unfettered access to the deepest pockets for greater transparency is not a fair trade. We need disclosure and limits. Knowing a driver is going 200 miles per hour does not mean it is safe for him to do so. Similarly, knowing a candidate received $100,000 or $1,000,000 from a single donor does not make that candidate less corrupted or corruptible. Nor does it foster any faith in our system. As the Supreme Court noted in Buckley v. Valeo, contribution limits are one of the law’s “primary weapons against the reality or appearance of improper influence” on candidates by contributors. The Court found that these limits “serve the basic governmental interest in safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process.”
A campaign finance system that permits unlimited contributions to candidates would encourage an arms race between candidates, each promising access and influence to any sugar daddy willing to fork over a six or seven figure contribution. A plutocracy would evolve, with voters’ and small donors’ voices drowned out by the amplifying power of unlimited contributions from a few.
We share Axelrod’s frustration with the current dark money system and understand that only the thinnest veneer exists between third party groups and the candidates they support. But rather shredding that veneer, laws should adopted to fortify it. As a first step, Axelrod’s own proposal of “full disclosure, with stiff penalities” should apply to the Super PACs and 501(c) groups that engage in political activities with unlimited funds. The DISCLOSE Act would have provided such disclosure, had it not been killed in Congress. (It should be noted that, consistent with his continued disappointing actions on transparency and reform, the president failed to use any political capitol to ensure passage of a robust dark money transparency bill.)
Our campaign finance and disclosure system is in desperate need of repair. But giving up on it is not the answer. We need to shine a bright light on all the money already in the system, without opening up the floodgates for still more.