Opengov bills still provide hope on Citizens United’s fifth anniversary

A view of the west facade of the U.S. Supreme Court building, full of grand columns set to a blue sky background.

The U.S. Supreme Court. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision — a decision that not only opened the floodgates for secret money in politics, but also shifted the policy debate in Washington by diminishing the voices of average citizens in favor of wealthy special interests.

To mark the anniversary, a number of members of Congress are rolling out bills aimed at righting the ship that has gone so far off course. The Republican-led Congress is extremely unlikely to take up some of the more sweeping measures, but they should consider a number of transparency measures that don’t fall into the camp of “campaign finance reform,” because the legislation does not limit or restrict what can be spent on campaign or who can spend it. Instead, three of the bills introduced by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Angus King, I-Maine, simply expand upon current, well-established law. Indeed, two of the bills were introduced with bipartisan cosponsors in the past Congress. They deserve to move forward, and we’re happy to see two of them — the SUN Act and the Real Time Transparency Act — reintroduced today.

The Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act

Tester is the lead sponsor of the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, a simple bill that would require Senate candidates to electronically file their campaign finance reports with the FEC the same way House candidates and presidential candidates file. During the last Congress, the bill had the support of 50 co-sponsors representing both sides of the aisle. If enacted, the bill would save hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds and would ensure that the reports would be more accurate and accessible in a timely manner.

The Sunlight for Unaccountable Nonprofits Act (The SUN Act)

The SUN Act is another Tester bill that would require already public information about nonprofits be put online in a searchable, usable format. It would also require disclosure of large donors to nonprofits that elect to engage in political activities.

The SUN Act brings political spending out of the shadows. The bill ensures that tax-exempt organizations’ tax returns — their so-called 990s — are made public, online and in a searchable format. The information is already supposed to be made public, either by the IRS or, upon request, by the organizations themselves. In reality, the information far from accessible. The IRS charges a hefty fee for data from 990s, which it provides in a non-searchable DVD format. Nonprofits often make requesters jump through hoops before disclosing their 990s. And even when they put the forms online (as Sunlight does) the information is not in a usable format.

The bill would also require so-called social welfare organizations that specifically elect to engage in political activities to disclose donors who give $5,000 or more to the organization. The provisions are narrowly tailored not to prevent political speech by nonprofits. Instead, the bill addresses the rampant abuse of the tax code since Citizens United opened the door to ostensibly independent political spending by nonprofits. If a social welfare organization does not participate in politics, its donors can remain anonymous. On the other hand, a tax-exempt nonprofit that elects to spend its resources on politics must disclose its donors. An organization that wants to both serve the public interest and engage in politics has the option of bifurcating its activities, disclosing only donors whose contributions are being used influence elections. By limiting disclosure to only those donors who give more than $5,000 to a politically active organization, the bill allows small donors to continue to remain anonymous while providing transparency and accountability where it is needed most.

The Real Time Transparency Act

Introduced by King and Congressman Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, the Real Time Transparency Act requires that contributions of $1000 or more to candidates, parties and PACs are disclosed within 48 hours. The bill simply expands a 48-hour disclosure requirement already in place in the weeks prior to an election. Citizens should not have to wait weeks or months to find out who is making large contributions to members of Congress.

The entire package of bills being introduced tomorrow deserves serious consideration. House and Senate Republicans have been reluctant to take bold steps to address the problems resulting from Citizens United and other cases. They should, at the very least, be willing to make the money flow more transparent in order to empower citizens — and supporting these bills will do just that.