No Time To Wait for the Effects of Citizens United

January 22, 2010

Yesterday’s Citizens United decision threatens to bring immediate and substantial changes to our country’s electoral process. Most notably, the decision invites giant corporations to spend massive amounts in campaigns, thereby threatening to marginalize the opinions of real people during political debate. As Justice John Paul Stevens predicted in his eloquent dissent, “[w]hen citizens turn on their televisions and radios before an election and hear only corporate electioneering, they may lose faith in their capacity, as citizens, to influence public policy.”

With the 2010 election season looming, we must act quickly to restore public faith in our democratic process. Reform in an Age of Networked Campaigns, a report released last week by the Campaign Finance Institute, American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institute, proposes a number of innovative and intelligent campaign finance reforms to foster civic participation, including building on the small donor revolution of the 2008 campaign. Broad civic participation is undoubtedly key to combating democratic commercialization.

Along with reform proposals that could take some time to occur, the report advances one particular proposal that is not only absolutely critical, but immediately politically feasible. The idea is to create a single disclosure website to catalog “all electronically relevant material about political spending that must be disclosed by law.”

On the federal level, election-related financial information is currently scattered across a number of website – the result of a wacky system where various political entities report various types of information to various federal agencies. As the report illustrates,

For example, candidates, parties, and PACs report their financial activity in federal elections to the FEC; political committees known as 527 organizations (for the section of the tax code under which they are organized) report their finances to the IRS, but their expenditures that qualify as federal election activity, particularly their “electioneering communications” are disclosed to the FEC; labor unions report to the Department of Labor, but also disclose some of the monies spent communicating with members in federal elections to the FEC.

Now, one must have the navigation skills of Ferdinand Magellan and the patience of Mother Teresa to follow the money through that web. If, as the report proposes, all of this information were compiled in one easily-accessible hub, ordinary citizens would be able to stay on top of the campaign spending of candidates and other entities. This would not only serve a valuable voter informational interest, it would empower citizens to police violations of other valuable campaign finance laws.

There is no reason to think that turning this proposal into reality should be unduly burdensome. Organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and The National Institute on Money in State Politics have already been working to increase government transparency in precisely this manner. Thus, blueprints for affecting this type of reform already exist. Moreover, this initiative is a natural fit with the Obama administration’s commitment to promoting governmental transparency, citizen participation and collaboration to nourish innovation.

There is no excuse and no time to wait – We the People need to begin reclaiming our democracy today.