Take it from two U.S. senators from both sides of the aisle who have decades of experience in public life: Campaign-finance rules have a tremendous impact on the public policy agenda in Congress. Contrary to the popular perception, the prospect of getting – or not getting – a check from an individual or political action committee does not drive the typical decision on Capitol Hill. But decision-making is often colored by the prospect of facing $5 million in anonymous attack ads if a member of Congress crosses an economically powerful interest.
This influx of unregulated political cash stemming from the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision spawned a particularly vitriolic political cycle. Groups on both sides dumped some $6 billion into tearing down candidates for public office. The anonymity of much of this spending encourages ads that lower the level of political discourse and makes it harder, not easier, for Americans to make informed decisions. Most of all, this spending ensured that those elected in November would carry that pressure for strict and absolute partisanship back to Washington, hobbling our efforts to govern for another two years.
The resulting political gridlock is preventing progress in a number of areas, but most significantly on fundamental campaign-finance reforms. Our states have already pointed the way toward a solution.
In Alaska, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell signed legislation – passed by a Republican-dominated lower house and a bipartisan Senate – similar to the U.S. Senate-debated Disclose Act, which enhances disclosure requirements for political spending and limits corporations and political organizations from coordinating with political parties and candidates.
Oregon campaign-finance law has proven that near-immediate disclosure of contributions is not only possible but preferable. In the lead-up to Oregon’s elections, campaign committees must report large contributions within one week. Under federal law, which requires only quarterly reports, the influx of money immediately before an election is hidden from the public until months after the votes have been counted.
We propose combining the best elements of the Alaska and Oregon laws to create a federal campaign-finance structure that is transparent and holds everyone immediately accountable.
Under our proposal, any organization engaging in federal political activity of any kind, from candidacy to advocacy, would be required to disclose their donors in real time. The law would apply to every candidate running for office and every billionaire hoping to influence an election. The same rules would apply equally to corporations, nonprofits and every type of organization in between, so long as they are using money to try to influence elections.
Along with many Americans, we are uncomfortable with the Citizens United decision. Unlimited corporate and individual spending is corrosive to democracy and undermines the political process. But the case has been decided, and it is our prerogative as legislators to improve on it. What we, and you, can do is shine a bright light on the system the court created to ensure accountability for all who attempt to influence the democratic process. At minimum, the American people deserve to know before they cast their ballots who is behind massive spending, who is funding people and organizations, and what their agendas are.
While the majority of the justices rejected limits on political spending in Citizens United, they still acknowledged disclosure as vital to elections and democracy. Justice Antonin Scalia said as much in the 2010 case Doe v. Reed when he wrote, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
Congress has failed to take up this charge and ensure that the spending sanctioned by Citizens United is not cloaked in secrecy and subterfuge. Thoughtful members of both parties should discuss and agree to a disclosure structure that addresses all potential avenues of access and abuse and treats everyone in the political process equally. In other words, one that is fair to all.
Ron Wyden, a Democrat, represents Oregon in the Senate. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, represents Alaska in the Senate.
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