Last week, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman held a public hearing on his proposed regulations to require charities operating in New York to disclose their political spending. Testifying on behalf of the Brennan Center, I observed that these regulations are an essential first step to protect voters, social welfare organizations, and their donors from lax law enforcement by the Federal Election Commission and the IRS. But ultimately, as the Attorney General correctly recognized, more comprehensive action is required to limit the influence of money in politics.
The Attorney General’s new rules would require charities operating in New York State to disclose both the amount and percentage of their expenses spent on elections, regardless of where the elections take place. Additionally, any nonprofit that spends at least $10,000 in New York state and local elections would be required to disclose the names of all donors who gave at least $100 to the organization in the past year.
NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn, NYC Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, former NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson, and NYC Council Member Letitia James all spoke in favor of the regulations at the hearing. Their voices joined a chorus of good government groups supporting the regulations, including Common Cause New York, Public Citizen, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (“CREW”), and Citizens Union, as well as Columbia Law Professor Richard Briffault.
In his remarks, Schneiderman made clear that the proposed regulations are only the first step in a three part plan to address the issue of money in politics. First, he said, there must be a “long-term strategy to address the unregulated flows of money into the political process.” Second, “we must demand total transparency . . . We have to have full knowledge and disclosure of where campaign cash comes from and what it’s spent on.” Finally, we must “expand public campaign financing systems like the successful program . . . in New York City.”
The Attorney General explained that this strategy must include building a factual record to support the overturning of Citizens United. Schneiderman stressed, however, that his office could only address state and local elections because of the preemption doctrine and that the regulation of federal elections must occur at the federal level.
The people must have faith in their government, which means that the dangers of corruption and the appearance of corruption that stem from large political spending must be curtailed. Transparency allows voters to know who is trying to influence them as well as their elected officials. Finally, the importance of public financing, both in New York State and elsewhere, cannot be overstated. Under Citizens United, the amount of money spent supporting candidates cannot be limited. Public financing is an essential means of combating the money deluge by, providing candidates of all stripes with noncorrupting funds to give them a chance to get their names into the public sphere and compete with the established, the well-connected, and the wealthy.
Attorney General Schneiderman added that we should “work to see that [public financing] comes to pass this year” in New York State. Fortunately, a broad coalition has already mobilized to ensure the legislature and Governor Cuomo will work together to make it a reality. If these efforts succeed in establishing public financing in New York, the Empire State will truly be the national leader in reducing the importance of big money in politics.