Shedding Sunlight on Campaign Donations

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In this enlightening Q&A with Moyers & Company producer Gina Kim, The Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller shares her insight on Super PACs, campaign finance transparency, and the value of new journalistic technology.


Gina Kim: What are super PACs? Are they a threat to our democracy?

Ellen Miller: Transparency for political donations to candidates, to parties and entities that are involved in elections has been part of the political system since the days of Watergate. Arguably the biggest scandal at that time related to secret money in politics. So in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision two years ago, the failure of the Congress to act was a problem to provide a disclosure system to capture all the new money coming in.

The Supreme Court said that there were no limits on how much corporations could give, and they said, “But the solution to this problem is disclosure.”  Then the Congress never passed new disclosure requirements for these Super PACs.

In the 2010 midterm elections – we call it the super PAC election – there was $455 million spent, and $126 million of it was money where the source was never disclosed. So, imagine — this is a presidential year, right? They’ve already spent $14 million and we’re exactly, what, three weeks into the election season. (As of the morning of January 20, 2012 that number is $28.9 million.) It’s hard to predict how much these super PACs will spend, and how much will be hidden. That will damage our democracy. We’re now about to see a huge channel of money that will be unreported until either after the election, or never reported, that will swamp the money that is still reported. It’s a very real threat because we don’t know who’s really financing the elections. If you look at what happened in Iowa there’s no question that the money from these super PACs determined the outcome of that race.

They promoted Romney and they attacked Gingrich, who was rising in that race, and he plummeted. And the only candidate who wasn’t vilified by super PACs was Rick Santorum, and he became the new second tier leader. And so I would predict, as soon as super PAC money is targeted on him, the same kind of thing will happen. This money is determining the outcome of who’s going to win these contests, and that is fundamentally antidemocratic.

It’s important to note that it’s not just super PACs and their ability to accept and spend money in unlimited amounts. Eventually, the independent expenditure type super PACs have to report who contributes to them just as other campaign committees do. But those 501(c) 4 super PACs  don’t have to report who contributes to them. And a third issue is that with a wink and a nod, the super PACs that don’t have to report at all can give money to other groups, such as trade associations like the Chamber of Commerce, and completely obfuscate who’s financing elections.


Kim:  So how are you coming up with the numbers?

Miller: We’re tracking what can be tracked. We have real-time scrapers we build for ourselves and for reporters. These scrapers are working the Federal Election Commission website 24/7. As soon as something is filed, we pick it up and put it on the Web, which is a heck of a lot easier to use than going to the FEC. Any interested citizen or journalist can have access to them there.  And the online access means that reporters all over the country can follow this money.


Kim: What can be done?

Miller: While I know that transparency, real-time, online, 21st century style disclosure, is not the answer to this problem, it is a step that can create accountability in the political process. It’s the first step and it’s something that is practical and feasible. It’s really telling that the Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — could not agree on a simple, straightforward disclosure bill for the super PAC problem.

We’re in the process now of developing a new piece of legislation to solve the disclosure problems called the SUPERPAC ACT (Stop Undisclosed Payments in Elections from Ruining Public Accountability in Campaigns), which we posted on publicmarkup.org for the public to comment on. We hope to have it introduced to Congress and move forward in this year — that’s optimistic.  That would address the number one problem, which is, we don’t know who’s giving huge amounts of political money.


Kim: What new regulations would help you do your job better and more easily? Are there new policies or laws that you would be excited to see?

Miller: Yes, there are. If you look on our website, we have a policy section where we lay out what our legislative agenda is. At its most basic it’s that all public data should be accessible online in real-time, meaning filed on a daily or weekly basis. It should be as easy to report political finance information, ethics information, lobbying information and all government data as it is to text from your Blackberry or your iPhone.

Another piece of legislation we support, introduced by Steve Israel (D-NY), is called POIA — playing off of FOIA.

The Public Online Information Act  requires anything that is required to be made public be made accessible online. Any reports, any data, information, etc., from any aspect of  government would be required to be online. Getting something like that enacted would be a major first step to transparency of information. We are focused also on enhanced lobbying reporting.  In this heyday of unlimited political contributions, lobbyists have unbridled access to members of Congress. We need daily or  weekly online reporting of all visits by lobbyists and the names of the offices they are visiting. This legislation also does away with this 20 percent loophole that many rainmakers, former members of Congress, use because they technically don’t spend 20 percent of their time on Capitol Hill.

Kim: Do you think there is a connection between Citizens United and Super PACs, the economic mess we’re in and the state of our democracy?

Miller: Yes. What you see in the political finance system is unequal and unparalleled access to decision-makers in government by the rich and influential — the ones who make campaign contributions. It’s actually  the one percent of the one percent. We did a recent analysis of them. Who are these people? This teeny minority determines who runs for office and who wins, what the Congress does, what the state legislatures do, and it’s the Congress and the legislatures that have enacted policies that have led us in the direction of the economic circumstances in which we now find ourselves. Without question, there is a direct relationship between how we finance our politics and who finances our politics and outcomes. This is a bipartisan problem. There are big contributors on both sides.


Kim: What’s coming up on the horizon that you’re most excited about?

Miller: In terms of Sunlight, the increasing sophistication we have to build tools to mash datasets together, to connect the dots. We’re having conversations about what data would be useful to illustrate how corporations get what they get — and what — from Washington, whether it’s tax breaks, subsidies, or paying very little taxes. I think that’s a major next step for us, to expand in that direction to develop ever more sophisticated databases that connect the dots. We also are working towards more training for journalists, developing online tutorials, and more partnerships with other non-profit organizations as they begin to understand how money and politics affects their works as well.

I’m also excited about more mobile tools. It’s amazing how widespread the mobile platform is for engaging citizens.  We had a Congress app — it’s called ‘Congress App’ for the Android that over 400,000 people have downloaded. It’s used 50,000 to 70,000 times a week. We don’t know who these people are, but if they are interested in their member of Congress, they are probably going to be interested in political information as well.  So we’re talking about building out more mobile apps for people who are hungry for this information to have it in their hands.

Almost everything Sunlight does uses technology to advance the information that ordinary citizens and journalists have at their fingertips, to engage citizens in demanding accountability, enabling them to tell their government what they think. The phenomenon is only going to getting bigger.

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  • lthudson

    Great info.  Good luck trying to pass these legislations in this Congress.  How can we get the word out to everyone?  Maybe OWS can help.  Thank you for giving me hope in these despairing times.