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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

When Campaign Finance Fails


Election’s Big Secret: Donors

The headline above is spread across the front page of this morning’s Seattle Times. The paper notes that $40 million in political advertising has been bought or reserved in the Seattle market – a non-presidential election record. But here is the really interesting number: more than $3 million is being spent by non-profit organizations that under federal law are not required to disclose their donors.

The cardinal rule of campaign finance has to be disclosure. Without a high degree of transparency, much higher than we have today, voters simply lack an essential piece of information to use in evaluating the claims, credibility and credence of the hundreds of thousands of political claims we see on TV and the Internet.

President Obama has rightly received some brush back for his assertion that “foreign money” is finding its way into the vast campaign spending by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, which as of this week has spent more than $12 million on the road to spending $75 million, flatly denies the charge, but there is a little problem. Even granting that the Chamber or Karl Rove’s new group or any number of committees from the political left are clean on the “foreign money” charge, without full disclosure of donors we can’t possible know the source or evaluate the motives of those writing really big checks.

Obama has been on this bandwagon since the controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citzens United case turned a hundred years of campaign finance law upside down when the Court ruled that corporations and labor unions, among others, could spend like the proverbial drunken sailor on political causes. Now comes the widespread use of no name non-profits to avoid any transparency about who is spending and why.

There are two broad schools of thought about campaign financing. One notion holds that the way to ensure that the public interest, broadly defined, is best served is by requiring tight limits on contributions. The second school of thought says full disclosure of contributions is the way to go. The belief being that sunshine and transparency are the best disinfectants for inappropriate use of money in campaigns.

The trouble with this new non-profit, non-disclosure approach is that neither of the historical checks on abuse – limits or full disclosure – are in place. We know how much these groups are spending, but there are no limits on the spending and no requirement to tell us the source of the cash. That is plan and simple a prescription for big time mischief.

Here is the reality: everyone has dirty hands. Whether its Al Gore’s Buddist temple fundraiser in 2000 or the Swift Boat Veterans in 2004 or Rove’s Crossroad GPS this year, both parties play heavily in this swamp and therefore have little motivation to reform things. Both sides, meanwhile, attempt to score debating points by bashing the other side for being unfair or unethical. Politics as usual.

By the way, after noting that there are no limits on contributions to Crossroads GPS, the group’s website offers this disclaimer: “The IRS does not make these donor disclosures available to the general public. Crossroads GPS’s policy is to not provide the names of its donors to the general public. Contributions to Crossroads GPS are not deductible as charitable contributions for federal income tax purposes, and do not count against an individual’s $115,500 biennial aggregate contribution limit under federal campaign finance law.”

In short, give early and often and don’t worry it will all be secret.

In matters of money intersecting with public policy, here’s my personal rule: If a donor – or an advocacy group – does everything possible to avoid disclosure it is because they can’t stand the sunshine. The law ought to make such folks walk the talk and live out the courage of their convictions.

If you can’t stand the public scrutiny of full public disclosure in politics, you should keep your money under the mattress and not hide it in a non-profit that exists to influence public policy. The old line applies, you pays your dues and takes your chances and everyone should know.

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