Transparency Is Key to Campaign Finance Reform

  • submit to reddit is proud to collaborate with EveryVoice on a series of op-eds featuring ideas from a variety of viewpoints for making our democracy one that is truly of, by and for the people. Discover more ways to fight back against our broken campaign finance system. It’s a fight we can win.

stacks of paper

Senate candidates file their campaign finance reports on paper, wasting taxpayer money and purposefully locking away information about their contributors. (Photo: Christian Schnettelker/Flickr CC 2.0)

Chris Gates
Sunlight Foundation
With the billions of dollars currently flooding our political system, there has probably never been a better time to be a political consultant or a lobbyist, or a worse time to find common ground on issues. Congress seems to take more symbolic votes — repealing the Affordable Care Act or dismantling the Dodd-Frank reforms — than it does substantive ones, and the president increasingly ignores them. Average Americans facing their own challenges—whether it’s saving to put a child through college, dealing with an unexpected illness, or suddenly finding themselves out of a job — can be forgiven for the low opinion they have of Congress.

Our government and political system desperately need effective policies that prioritize transparency and real-time access to information about how laws are made and how electioneering is paid for. When people know who’s influencing politicians behind the scenes, whether it’s giving to their campaigns, lobbying them or running ads attacking them, they can better exercise their democratic rights. An informed citizenry has kept us a functioning republic through world wars, depressions and terrorist attacks — and it’s still the key to the challenges we face today.

A lot of what doesn’t work in Washington — and a lot of what Washington works for — can be explained by money. In the 2014 midterm election, federal candidates, super PACs and other groups spent nearly $4 billion to influence voters. In the 2012 presidential election, the price tag was $7 billion. But this isn’t the full picture. Dark money groups — those that do not disclose their donors — spent huge sums on “issue ads,” which attack a politician, often in misleading terms, while carefully avoiding suggesting citizens vote against that politician. In the last election cycle, groups like Americans for Prosperity announced they were spending millions in Senate races around the country, but none of that spending was disclosed to the Federal Election Commission.

While those 30-second attack ads have come to dominate our political discourse, special interests quietly work the Washington levers of power. A recent Sunlight report found that the 200 most politically active corporations spent, over a six-year period, $5.8 billion on political influence, including campaign contributions and lobbying, a staggering sum. Still, that’s a pittance compared to the $4.4 trillion in federal business, contracts, grants and subsidies that those same 200 corporations received from the federal government over the same time period. To put that figure in perspective, that’s more than the $4.3 trillion the Social Security Administration paid out to roughly 50 million Americans over the same time frame.

With lobbyists — who more and more exploit loopholes in disclosure rules to avoid registering — working the halls of Congress, dark money groups gearing up to spend more than ever on polarizing political ads ahead of the presidential election, and a Supreme Court that has radically altered the campaign finance landscape, one can despair that money is drowning out the voice of the public in Washington. But there are ways to level the playing field, and they start with transparency.

There are several proposals currently in Congress that would improve transparency and put more power back in the hands of voters, beginning with requiring Senate candidates to electronically file their campaign finance reports. House and presidential candidates already e-file their reports, but Senate candidates file on paper (with the exception of a bipartisan few who voluntarily e-file), wasting nearly $500,000 in taxpayer money a year and for months after an election purposefully locking away information about their contributors. This, coupled with real-time disclosure of donations exceeding $1000, would give voters real-time access to information about who is contributing to campaigns. This information could also be used to see almost instantly who is donating to members of Congress when legislation is introduced, votes are taken, and filibusters launched.

In addition, while spending vast sums to influence voters, dark money groups involved in politics should not be allowed to exploit loopholes in disclosure requirements to hide the identities of their donors. The Sunlight for Unaccountable Nonprofits (SUN) Act is the right legislative remedy to bring donors out of the shadows.

Disclosure at the end of the money trail is just as important. The Federal Communications Commission has rightly decided to require cable and satellite companies and radio broadcasters, in addition to television broadcasters, to post online their political files, which contain information about who is buying political ads during and around their programs. Right now, these files are one of the only ways we can see who’s spending money, and where.

Transparency is the first step in a reform agenda, because informed citizens can and will make the right choices about their country. The public should have access to the information about who is behind the flood of money in our politics, and they should have it in real time. Congress can begin the process of winning back the public’s trust by enacting these sensible reforms.

Chris Gates is president of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government globally and uses technology to make government more accountable to all.
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