PD Editorial: Opening a window on campaign cash
Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 26, 2013 at 4:27 p.m.
In the U.S. Supreme Court's notorious Citizens United decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that publicly disclosing campaign expenditures enables voters “to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and different messages.”
The 2010 ruling invalidated century-old prohibitions on corporate and union spending to influence federal elections, but it didn't envision the rise of shadowy groups fueled by anonymous donations as seen during the two subsequent election cycles.
“With the advent of the Internet,” Kennedy wrote for a narrow 5-4 majority, “prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.
“Shareholders can determine whether their corporation's political speech advances the corporation's interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are 'in the pocket' of so-called moneyed interests.”
Call Kennedy optimistic, maybe even naive.
It's been almost 3½ years since Citizens United, and neither of the primary regulators of campaign cash — Congress and the Federal Election Commission — has done anything substantive to provide the transparency Kennedy described.
Candidates must identify donors and itemize expenses. PACS do, too. But, largely due to Citizens United, tax-exempt groups and trade associations are the big new players in U.S. elections, and they don't have to identify their benefactors.
Anonymous campaign spending is a malignant trend. Voters can't assess a message if they don't know the messenger. Under present law, groups hide behind anodyne names like Americans for Prosperity that offer no clues about their backers or any interests they have in decisions to be made by the officials they support or oppose for election.
A first step toward greater transparency may be on its way, and it's coming from an unlikely source.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal regulatory agency charged with protecting investors, is considering a rule requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose all of their political donations to shareholders. A proposed rule could be issued by the end of the month, the New York Times reported.
An SEC rule is a start, but it's not a full fix. The SEC can't mandate disclosure by unions, businesses other than publicly traded corporations or individuals. But it might prompt corporate America to press Congress to apply the rules evenly.
Indeed, the first hints of SEC action brought an immediate response from Capitol Hill.
Unfortunately, House Republicans are defending the status quo. They introduced legislation to bar the SEC from issuing any political disclosure regulations. There's a more promising bill in the Senate, co-sponsored by Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon.
Their bill would require all groups, including tax-exempt groups, to report campaign contributions and expenditures. It's called the Follow the Money Act. That's still good advice, especially when it's campaign money.
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