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Let the public follow the political money trail

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on May 5, 2010 at 7:13 pm with No Comments »
May 5, 2010 6:19 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

We’d gladly trade any number of rules that try to micromanage campaign donations and spending in exchange for one thing: disclosure.

Full disclosure. That means telling the citizens exactly who is paying to buy the ads, mount the attacks and swing the election.

It means not merely naming political committees – which may be front organizations – but also naming the individuals who gave to those committees. It means doing this in real time, as the money shows up in campaign coffers, not letting political operatives keep voters in the dark until after the votes are counted.

Democracy presupposes an informed electorate, and the Internet can now make the electorate more informed than ever. That’s why the aggressive disclosure provisions in a new bill introduced last week by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., ought to be enacted in time for the 2010 election season.

The bill is part of a Democratic attempt to curb the effects of a January U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down longstanding limits on corporate campaign spending. Democrats fear that titans of industry will now pour fortunes into Republican candidacies; Schumer says that some CEOs won’t want the public and shareholders to see what would otherwise have been covert political operations.

His bill has some dubious provisions, such as a mandate that broadcasters sell discounted air time to candidates facing corporate-funded opponents. But the disclosure requirements – including one that could force CEOs and union bosses to publicly and personally endorse the ads they finance – are sweet.

They’re worth passing regardless of partisan advantage and the Citizens United decision.

Although Schumer and other Democrats are focused on corporate money, the bill doesn’t exempt labor union, non-profits, advocacy groups or anyone else trying to dump cash into campaigns. The principle applies across the board: You pay for the campaign, you own it – and the voters have a right to know who you are.

Opposition is coming from both right and left, from corporate lobbyists and advocacy groups. They complain, in essence, that being flushed into the open could discourage their involvement in politics.

The right response is, “Tough.” As Justice Antonin Scalia said in last week’s Supreme Court hearing on the disclosure of Washington’s Referendum 71 petitions, “The fact is that running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage.”

Washingtonians have seen their share of large, mysterious political donations. In the 2004 attorney general race, for example, candidate Deborah Senn got slammed by a $1.5 million television campaign financed by a front group with an opaque name: “Voters Education Committee.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was eventually exposed as the deep pocket, but Washingtonians still don’t know who gave the money to the chamber. Senn lost the election.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is now expected to lead the corporate opposition to Schumer’s bill. What a coincidence.

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