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Springtime for Disclosure

A Republican and Democrat in the Senate introduced the first bipartisan bill to beef up disclosure of outside political spending. Could something finally be done to address the torrent of spending unleashed by Citizens United?

  • Jonathan Backer
April 30, 2013

Crossposted on The Hill’s Congress Blog.

With spring in full bloom, the ground isn’t the only thing beginning to thaw. Finally, more than two years after Citizens United unleashed a torrent of spending in federal elections, the rigid partisan stalemate on disclosure appears to be softening.

Last week, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) unveiled the Follow the Money Act, which would beef up disclosure of outside spending. Before that, the Texas Senate, a body with a 19–12 Republican majority, passed similar legislation by a 23–6 vote. The bill now moves to the Assembly after a Senate committee approved it unanimously.

Campaign finance disclosure is not a partisan issue — or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Although the notoriously anti-campaign finance reform Roberts Court struck down a longstanding prohibition on corporate and union spending in politics when it decided Citizens United, the decision also unequivocally and emphatically embraced disclosure by a near unanimous 8–1 vote. Describing disclosure as “a less restrictive alternative to more comprehensive regulations of speech,” the Court said it is essential so “citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”

The 2012 election demonstrated the dire need for the law to catch up with the new campaign finance reality. Outside spending increased by more than 225 percent between 2008 and 2012. Of a total of $1 billion spent on television and radio advertisements by independent groups, a record-low 41 percent of that sum was fully disclosed.

This trend threatens our democracy. The Supreme Court has reiterated time and again that disclosure is necessary for combating corruption. If contributions and spending are not disclosed, there’s no way for enforcement agencies, the press, or citizens to detect wrongdoing by candidates and officeholders. And without disinfecting sunlight, experience shows that politicians will look out for their own insular interests, not the public’s.

Disclosure is also an important shortcut for voters to make informed decisions at the ballot box. With all the platitudes exchanged between both sides during a campaign, it’s sometimes difficult for voters to determine a candidate’s true agenda. Campaign contributions, and which outside groups are spending millions to elect a given candidate, can shed meaningful light on the type of public servant a candidate will be once in office.

Wyden and Murkowski, and the members of the Texas state legislature, should be commended for recognizing that disclosure serves neither Republican nor Democratic interests. It serves the public interest.

Many details remain to be worked out for federal disclosure legislation to become law, but engagement is the first step, and until recently, that prerequisite for action has remained frustratingly and disturbingly out of reach. There’s a long way to go, but it’s refreshing to see bipartisan leadership on a very important issue.

Photo by Sen. Ron Wyden.