Dark money threatens our democracy

10 years ago

How do we respect and enhance the freedom of expression enshrined in the First Amendment while protecting the government from being corrupted by the unchecked flow of money to public officials?
We have wrestled with this problem for well over a hundred years through periodic scandals and periodic corrections, new laws and new ways to evade those laws. But, as I observed at a Senate Rules Committee hearing on July 23, we have never seen anything like what is happening today.
The average Senator now must raise more than $5,000 a day, every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for six years to be prepared for the next election. But as disheartening as this is, it is only part of the story. Over the last decade, and accelerating in the last five years, is a new phenomenon – the unchecked, unlimited, undisclosed gusher of money from individuals, interest groups, and shadowy organizations that has become a kind of parallel universe of essentially unregulated campaign cash.
Sadly, many outside groups operate without meaningful disclosure requirements under today’s campaign finance laws. And the result is an almost total loss of accountability, the hiding of vital information from voters – who it is that is trying to influence their vote – and an inevitable slide toward corruption and scandal.
But there’s something Congress can do about it. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island has a bill, The DISCLOSE Act, which is seen by many experts as a fair approach to giving voters the information they need while balancing the concerns of organizations trying to avoid cumbersome reporting requirements. With sensible solutions like the DISCLOSE Act, we can increase transparency without damaging the fundamental freedom of speech afforded to every American under the First Amendment.
Probably the purest form of free political speech in America is the traditional New England town meeting. It’s a place where citizens from all walks of life gather together, usually on a cool Saturday morning in early March, to debate, argue and decide the school budget, whether to buy a new police cruiser, or which roads will be paved in the coming year.
I’ve been to many of these meetings in Maine and heard the spirited debates – and seen some folks go home angry and hurt when their point of view didn’t prevail. But everyone speaks up for themselves, and I’ve never seen someone stand to speak in disguise. We know who’s doing the talking and that, in itself, is valuable information.
And so it should be in our elections – because what is an election but a big town meeting, where the people decide the future of their community or their country? And an essential part of the debate, an essential part of how we all make decisions, is knowing who’s doing the talking. That’s why we need more disclosure in our campaign finance system, and why I’m a strong supporter of the DISCLOSE Act. This isn’t a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, it’s a democracy issue – and the future of our political system is at stake.