Transparency advocates look at “The Price We Pay for Money’s Influence on Politics” during Sunlight-hosted event

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., talks about how he has advocated for transparency while in Congress during "The Price We Pay for Money's Influence on Politics."
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., talks about how he has advocated for transparency while in Congress during “The Price We Pay for Money’s Influence on Politics.”

Reporters at the newspaper that broke the Watergate scandal have concluded that “dark money” inundating this year’s elections makes it impossible to give voters a clear picture of who’s trying to influence their vote, Washington Post reporter Tom Hamburger said Tuesday at a panel discussion hosted by the Sunlight Foundation and ReThink Media.

The event, which introduced Sunlight’s incoming president, Chris Gates, featured journalists, transparency experts and political scientists for a conversation about campaign finance and the tangled web of so-called dark money groups, which do not have to disclose their donors. Although the speakers – and audience members, during the Q&A portions – painted a dire picture of transparency in politics, a handful sounded a more hopeful tone, saying that progress is happening, largely due to the work of advocates at the event.

“What I see in this room are a whole lot of people dedicated to putting themselves out of a job,” said Emily Peterson-Cassin, a panelist and project coordinator at the Bright Lines Project, which aims to clarify the IRS rules about nonprofits’ political activities.

One of the morning’s first speakers was Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who immediately gave a shout-out to Sunlight’s multipronged work to make government data more available and accessible.

“With transparency comes accountability, and we need more people like you,” Tester said of the organization.

In fact, he credits his initial Senate win in 2006 to this “accountability,” explaining that he believes he won because his opponent, former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, was linked to the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Since coming into office, Tester has championed electronically filing Senate campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission as well as the DISCLOSE Act, which would require that political contributions of $10,000 or more be reported within 24 hours. Tester was also the first senator to post his daily schedule online, which Sunlight heralded, in 2007, as “what real openness looks like.”

On Tuesday, Tester contended “transparency will help” combat the hyper-partisanship enveloping D.C., a main motivation for his work on the subject. “People ask me, why does this matter? I’ll tell you why it matters: Folks are disgusted with Washington, D.C., and they’re disgusted with the election process,” he said.

During a money and politics panel – moderated by Sunlight’s Lisa Rosenberg, who lobbies Congress on transparency-related legislation – reporter Robert Maguire pointed out that money’s role in campaigns continues to impact politics long after elections are decided. Dark money organizations that, for example, buy ad time to influence an election are “trying to get people into office so they can make policies” friendly to a specific agenda, he said.

And attempting to track how money wends its way into politics, from beginning to end, has only gotten more convoluted, according to Hamburger, a longtime money and politics reporter. He said that when he first started on his beat, he was able to keep track on a simple spreadsheet. But the environment now is more akin to a “swamp,” he said, referencing a complicated (and informative) chart the Center for Responsive Politics created about the Koch brothers’ web of nonprofits.

The Sunlight Foundation's new president, Chris Gates, speaks at "The Price We Pay for Money's Influence on Politics" on Tuesday, Sept. 16.
The Sunlight Foundation’s incoming president, Chris Gates, speaks at “The Price We Pay for Money’s Influence on Politics” on Tuesday, Sept. 16.

Hamburger also said that, during a recent editorial meeting about the Washington Post’s midterms coverage, everyone present concluded it was next to impossible to give readers a full report on the money flowing into political campaigns. Because of the presence of dark money groups, the money that’s reported to the FEC is only part of the equation, he said.

When it comes to shifting this balance, Hamburger’s assessment was stark – and rather bleak.

“Without a scandal, I’m not confident things will change,” Hamburger said.

Along with Sunlight’s founding executive directior, Ellen Miller, her successor, Sunlight’s new president, Chris Gates, also attended the panel. Gates, who officially starts Oct. 1, is a political and civic engagement advocate who has served as president of the National Civic League and, most recently, was the executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, or PACE. Miller, who announced in February that she would retire, founded Sunlight in 2006. She also helped found the Center for Responsive Politics and Public Campaign.