Is it the voter’s responsibility to shift through the lies? Or is there a role for government in regulating speech and money in politics?
A recent editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune titled “Does Money Influence Politics? Oh Grow Up!” makes the argument that no amendment or regulation will keep those with money and power from exploiting any political process to amass more money and power. The author, George Pyle, is 100% right. He’s also right that it is we, the (sometimes) voting public, who have the responsibility of seeing through the garbage and spin. But what Pyle neglects in his send up of calls for legislative reform is the importance of campaign finance and spending regulation in providing the information that can help voters do exactly what he prescribes.
You can’t pretend there isn’t a level of ludicrous influence money could, or may already have achieved in influence over our political system. With all the noise made over the Citizens United decision, it floors me there’s so little notice of that what the ruling exposed was the justices of America’s highest court had absolutely no clue how campaign finance has been working in America’s elections. Not because they aren’t smart people, but because it’s a ridiculously opaque system ripe with loopholes. With all the tut-tutting over Lois Lerner’s emails from Rep. “I’m Sure This is Obama’s Katrina, For Real This Time” Chaffetz, missing is any discussion over how difficult it is for the IRS to actually determine and crack down on illegal political spending. In all the discussions defending or criticizing money as speech, or not, missing is any real discussion over Bank of America and 3M drawing on general treasury funds to spend over $2 million lobbying and campaigning in the same year taxpayers had to bail them out of a self-created catastrophe. Gone is any pretense of the small donor funded campaign, save lip service from candidates who — and this is really telling — usually have little chance at winning.
To wit, it’s not the money itself that should concern us, it’s the who/when/where and how much. It’s the role transparency — not the kind SCOTUS thought existed in the Citizens United decision, but real transparency Congress and state legislatures have the tools to create — plays in voters seeing through the lies.
Because we’re not just talking about TV ad disclosures here.
Last month in Arizona, it took a public records request of the FCC (not the FEC, or IRS mind you) to accidentally discover a tragically legal and complex campaign money laundering effort by public utilities to give their guy a leg up in a race for — get this — a spot on the commission that regulates public utilities. Oh, and this might have been going on for years, nationwide. Earlier this year Ohio State University Moritz College of Law researchers produced one of the most comprehensive reports on the changes in political spending the last few years. The stand out takeaways? Non-profits and SuperPACs have obliterated traditional PACs and candidates themselves in spending. And those non-coordinating with campaigns, only indirect spending rules for the non-profits (who don’t have to reveal donors) SCOTUS said made their Citizens United ruling not a huge mistake? Ohio researchers: AH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA ya sure, they’re following those. They promise (Shorter version via the Sunlight Foundation if you’re attention span challenged). Oh, and here at home… John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff and Jason Powers and Friends!
I don’t go much for calls and cause to “get the money out” or elaborate public financing schemes, because, to borrow from Pyle, it’s 10 foot fences, 11 foot ladders, etc. But unlike Pyle, I think there is a lot that can, and should be done via regulative and education efforts to increase transparency.
Disclosure laws with teeth, requirements to inform shareholders of detailed corporate spending, strict and consistent review of non-profits’ political spending, the FEC remembering they only had one job, education initiatives geared at exposing fronts and frauds, real-time reporting with this new-fangled internet thingy we hear so much about…
These are just a few of the things that would reduce the out-sized influence of big moneyed peddlers of dishonest issue campaigns, shill candidates, and hijacked policy debates.
Pyle is right to say in the end, it is our own responsibility to not be duped. But they, the wealthy and powerful, can afford more creative lawyers to stay powerful. That’s where our governing institutions, federal, state, county, and city, have a responsibility of their own, to us, to aid in uncovering dark money and buried spending, and shedding as much light as possible on the who/when/where and how much money is trying to buy our votes.