Citizens Entitled to Timely Access to Information about Money in Politics

sw14-rosenberg-60x80by Lisa Rosenberg
Government Affairs Consultant
Sunlight Foundation

In the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision likely to be announced soon, the Supreme Court is expected to strike down the long-standing cap on total contributions individuals may give to federal candidates and political parties, permitting the unseemly spectacle of a single donor contributing more than $3.5 million to one party during an election cycle. This Sunshine Week, as we consider the vital importance of the public’s right to know, we should put pressure on our elected officials to ensure we all have access to who’s funding and influencing our elections.

A more robust disclosure regime will be necessary to inform the public whether, in exchange for such massive contributions, donors are receiving more access to and influence over our elected officials. It’s technologically possible, so why not make this vital information available as soon as possible? Congress should enact legislation to mandate disclosure of all contributions of $1,000 or more to parties, candidates and political committees within 48 hours to enable citizens to better gauge whether their elected officials are representing their interests or special moneyed interests.

Nearly $7 billion was spent on campaigns in 2012. Roughly a billion dollars came from “outside” groups, the result of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision. The remainder was financed mostly with so-called hard money contributions made to the candidates and parties. The source of much of that money was the political 1% of the 1%, the wealthiest citizens whose voice in politics, if measured by spending, far outweighs everyone else’s.

The Court is likely to strike the overall contribution caps because a majority doesn’t view multi-million-dollar contributions from a single individual as a problem. What this court fails to recognize is the First Amendment rights of the 99.9% of citizens who cannot buy access to elected officials in order to give voice to their issues. Seven-figure contributions are not a megaphone merely amplifying the voices of the donors, they are a sonic boom, overpowering to the point of silencing all other voices.

The tiny number of donors with the political purchasing power to make multi-million-dollar contributions simply do not, cannot and will not represent the interests of most Americans. And while the super rich have every right to advocate for what they believe in, they shouldn’t have the right to suffocate everyone else’s voice under the weight of their massive campaign contributions. Without real time transparency, they will.

Citizens are affected every day by the decisions of their elected representatives, and have the right to know — in real time — when a campaign contribution or the access it buys contributed to the introduction of a bill, the tabling of an amendment or a vote on legislation. Technology allows those asking such questions to determine what role money played in shaping policy, and allows constituents to react if they determine their interests are not being represented.

Real-time transparency can foster accountability, deter corruption and provide for a better-informed electorate. But, while transparency is fundamental to our democratic system of government, it is not a panacea for all that ails our democracy. Limits on who can give to candidates and campaigns and how much they can give are still necessary to ensure our elected officials represent all of us. Knowing a driver is going 200 miles per hour does not mean it is safe for him to do so. Similarly, knowing a candidate asked for and received a five-, six- or seven-figure contribution from a single donor does not make that candidate less corrupted or corruptible. But as the attack on contribution limits continues, robust, real-time disclosure can act as a bulwark against the unfettered and wholesale purchase of our elections by the wealthy.

Our disclosure laws must reflect modern realities if they are to adequately serve voters’ right to information about who is paying for our elections. Disclosure of large contributions online, in real time, is a necessary, obvious and simple update. As Mitch McConnell, no friend to campaign finance laws, noted in 2010, “We need to have real disclosure… why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”

Why indeed? If the Supreme Court rules that it’s time for campaign contributors to go as big as they want, Congress must respond with a revamped disclosure system that shines a light on those contributions as soon as they are made so that voters know who is lining their elected representatives’ pockets.

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