Get to the gyrocopter: Congress should follow Doug Hughes’ lead and embrace campaign finance reforms

A gyrocopter, similar to what Doug Hughes used to land on the Capitol lawn. (Photo credit: Paul Campbell/Flickr)

Doug Hughes, the 61-year-old postal worker who landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn to protest “the corrosive influence of money in our political system,” is due in court in Washington today. He faces two felonies, four misdemeanors and possibly 9 1/2 years in prison.

Last weekend, he published an op-ed in The Washington Post explaining his act of civil disobedience, pointing to the growing movement of reforming the way that money flows through our politics and highlighting some of the solutions being considered across the country.

Hughes aligned himself with 152 organizations that signed on to the Unity Statement of Principles and called for “a 21st-century democracy where everyone has a right to know who is influencing our government, everyone has a voice, everyone participates, everyone plays by the same set of commonsense rules and everyone is held accountable if they break faith with those rules.”

Some of the reforms that could help achieve these goals, like a constitutional amendment, are ambitious and, while worthwhile, could take years to achieve. Others are common sense ideas that could easily be approved on a bipartisan basis — some already have been on the state level. The Sunlight Foundation has been pushing for a few of these ideas on the federal level — namely, Senate e-filing, real-time disclosure of campaign finance and better data on nonprofits — and we wanted to highlight them here.

Senate e-filing

This is, perhaps, the most obvious and easy fix. Currently, Senate candidates follow a convoluted, expensive, archaic and tortoise-paced method for reporting their campaign finance information. It costs taxpayers money and ensures that we don’t have timely access to information about who is funding Senate races.

Candidates for the House of Representatives and the White House already file their reports electronically, and it’s a quick fix to pull the Senate into the 21st century. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is currently championing the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act (S. 366) which would require senators to file electronically. The bill has received broad bipartisan support, but faces obstacles in leadership to get a vote.

Meanwhile, senators can voluntarily e-file. You should urge your senator to co-sponsor S. 366 and file their campaign finance reports electronically.

Real-time transparency

In its McCutcheon v. FEC decision, the Supreme Court argued that robust disclosure can be an effective antidote to loose limits on money in politics. Unfortunately for the public, disclosure has remained stagnant while money is flooding the system.

As Sunlight has said before, “The laws don’t exist to ensure effective, complete and timely disclosure. Right now, we have a system in which the public must wait as long as three months before some contributions are made public.” And it’s even longer for the Senate, as I detailed above.

There is a legislative fix that could solve some of these problems by ensuring that campaign contributions to candidates of more than $1,000 are reported within 48 hours. The bill, called the Real Time Transparency Act, was introduced in the 113th Congress by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas. It has not been reintroduced in the 114th Congress, but we hope that it will be.

The SUN Act

The Sunlight for Unaccountable Nonprofits Act (the SUN Act) is another smart bill from Tester, a true champion of reform in the Senate. It tackles a longstanding problem with a relatively easy solution. Currently, the Internal Revenue Service collects data on nonprofits (via form 990s) and releases it to the public. The problem? It doesn’t release the information in the same, useful format that it collects and keeps it in.

The SUN Act would require this information be posted online in a searchable, usable format. It would also require nonprofits that engage in political activities to disclose information about their major donors.

Shadowy nonprofits are playing an increasingly influential role in the political process — to the tune of $150 million in the last election cycle — and this bill would shed some light on their influence.

What else?

Congress isn’t the only federal body with a say in our campaign finance system. In his op-ed, Hughes mentioned an executive order that would restrict donations by federal contractors. There are also efforts underway at the Federal Communications Commission to require more disclosure around political ads; the IRS is being pushed to consider clear regulations around nonprofit political activities; and the Securities and Exchange Commission is under pressure to issue a rule that would require public companies to disclose their political spending to shareholders.

Hughes is far from the only American fed up with the money in our political system. It’s time for our leaders to recognize that reform is necessary and move now to strengthen our democracy.