Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority in Wednesday’s McCutcheon decision, noted that he sees no need for government to place restraints on individuals’ campaign spending because such information can be found “almost immediately” after they are filed.
“With modern technology, disclosure now offers a particularly effective means of arming the voting public with information,” the Chief Justice wrote. “Reports and databases are available on the FEC’s Web site almost immediately after they are filed, supplemented by private entities such as OpenSecrets.org and FollowTheMoney.org.”
The problem with Robert’s observation is that it’s not true (unless your definition of “almost immediately” is several months or possibly never). According to the Sunlight Foundation, one of the good government groups that work to make campaign finance data available to the public, there are several major problems with getting data up in a timely matter. These include: the fact that senators aren’t required to file their campaign finance reports electronically, resulting in delays; members of the House only have to disclose their donors every few months; and some campaign committees game the system to delay disclosure. For these reasons, groups such as Sunlight and Rootstrikers are calling on Congress to pass legislation mandating disclosure for donations over $1,000 within 48 hours.
To understand why knowing who’s bankrolling our politicians is so important to our democracy, consider what investigative journalists Kim Barker and Andy Kroll recently told Bill about why corporations go to great lengths to keep their political donations secret.
“Bad publicity,” Kroll said.
Barker and Kroll explain in this video clip how a political donation made by big box retailer Target shortly after the Citizens United decision resulted in a high-profile boycott and became “the shot heard around corporate America.”
Watch the two-minute clip:
In the 2010 elections, Target gave $150,000 to MN Forward, a big-business group trying to elect the GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who was against gay marriage. When Target’s contribution became public, the company was severely criticized over social media by gay rights groups and the LGBT community. As Kroll puts it:
You had the LGBT community and marriage equality advocates go ballistic, especially because Target had always portrayed itself as a sort of forward-thinking, hip, progressive organization. And yet, their money ended up supporting someone who was against gay marriage. And that scared a lot of people.
Barker called the incident “the canary in the coal mine,” adding that no corporation “wants that to happen again.” After the floodgates to campaign cash were opened following Citizens United, large companies like Target were able to buy as much influence as they could afford. But when corporate America saw how Target’s disclosed donation blew up in its face, it turned to social welfare organizations that are able to use funds to pay for election messaging without having to disclose where the money came from.