Super PACs need super disclosure

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 17, 2012 - 8:17 PM

There's a bipartisan benefit to more transparency in campaign contributions.

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Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., left, was accompanied by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., during a press conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill to discuss the growing impact of Super PACs.

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

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The bully pulpit is supposed to be a figure of speech. But try telling that to the U.S. Supreme Court. Some of its black-clad jurists looked ashen when President Obama broke protocol and rued their ruling in the Citizens United case during his 2010 State of the Union address.

"With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections," Obama said.

He was right: The floodgates are open. And Obama has joined right in, deciding that he needed his own super-PAC money in order to get reelected.

"We're not going to fight this fight with one hand behind our back," Jim Messina, the manager of Obama's reelection campaign, told the New York Times. "With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules. Democrats can't be unilaterally disarmed."

No, but they can be principled. And no one was in a better position to stay the course than Obama, whose already ample campaign war chest and, yes, the bully pulpit, could have proved that unlimited, unaccountable campaign cash wasn't necessary for voter support.

But now that super PAC superspending seems legally and politically here to stay, both parties can be principled in supporting legislation designed to more easily reveal who's behind the big bucks.

One such bill is the Disclose 2012 Act. It would require super PACs, unions, corporations or other groups to report contributions of $10,000 or more within 24 hours, so that voters can know in real time who is bankrolling campaigns. Leaders of these groups would have to say they "approve this message," just like candidates in campaign commercials. And the top five financial contributors would have to be listed.

Groups would have to disclose their election expenditures to their members or shareholders in annual financial reports and post their political spending online. And paid lobbyists would need to disclose their political expenditures.

"This is important, because transparency in campaigns leads to more accountability in governance," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told me. "When there's sunshine on the campaign process, we believe it helps reduce the influence of special interests. A lot of these groups would prefer to operate in the dark and in secret, and this [bill] requires public exposure. And we think that maximum public exposure leads to better public-policy decisions."

As important as what the bill does is what it doesn't do. There are no spending limits to slow the oncoming onslaught of campaign ads that might make viewers reach for their library cards instead of their remote controls.

But it would help viewers, and voters, decipher Delphic names of super PACs like Restore our Future or Priorities USA Action.

"It's helpful to know who is paying for these efforts," said Mary Boyle, vice president of Common Cause. "Given the Citizens United decision, this is something that can be done immediately and fairly easily. The court, and many on both sides of the aisle, believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant."

Or so they say. Obama's on board for more disclosure, White House regional communications director Caroline Hughes indicated in an e-mail. But so far, of the bill's 110 cosponsors, not a single one is Republican.

"The great irony is the Republicans are on the record repeatedly saying they are for disclosure, yet they have refused to support this bill so far," said Van Hollen, who notes that "80 percent or more" of the public supports disclosure.

Reluctant Republicans should reconsider, especially in light of the undesirable impact super PACs can have on candidates.

"If there are truly independent expenditures, the candidate is completely losing control, too," said Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant at the Sunlight Foundation. "These outside groups are shaping the message and the debate. So not only is it the voters who don't have a voice -- even some of the candidates lose their voice, too. It's not what our democracy is supposed to represent. It's really dangerous and frightening."

Maybe so. But fear not. Legislative remedies can be crafted to ensure bipartisan support. There are political remedies, too: One day a credible candidate will win an election in spite of -- or even because of -- limiting campaign contributions to modest donations from individual voters.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

 

 

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