Lang Waters: Dark Money, bright laws
“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
— Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis
If there is anything that reds and blues can agree on, it’s that our political process, particularly at the federal level, is broken.
Liberals and conservatives agree that fair elections are important. We agree in principle, but of course we disagree with respect to policy. But even on this uneven ground, most of us agree that democracy requires transparency. Perhaps we disagree on whether money is speech, but regardless, it is of paramount importance to know where that money is coming from.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion on Citizens United (2010), wrote that, “With the advent of the internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide … the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.” At that time many loopholes already existed, and the Citizens United decision only exacerbated the problem. Money that is difficult or impossible to ascertain the source of has poured into our elections. Kennedy noted in a 2015 interview with Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow that disclosure is “not working the way it should.” Why? Because the instant disclosure that Kennedy referred to in his 2010 opinion is not mandated by law. We, the people, need to create these disclosure laws.
Corruption is legal in the United States. The urgent need for sunshine laws cannot be more apparent. In a 2015 Newsweek article it was noted that between 1986 and 2012, the average cost of a senate race increased 62 percent and the average cost of a congressional seat increased 344 percent. In 2012, House incumbents raised an average of $2,400 per day in the two-year cycle. Senate incumbents raised an average of more than $4,700 per day. The result of these increases is that the people we send to Congress spend more than half of their time raising money for their next election. They aren’t learning about issues, they aren’t building relationships with colleagues on the other side of the fence and they have less time to meet with their constituents. Because the costs of an election are so high, our elected representatives can only pay attention to their biggest donors.
In 2014 Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page at Princeton published a study of political inequality in America called “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens.” The central finding was this: Economic elites and interest groups (corporations/lobbies) can shape U.S. government policy — but Americans who are below the 90th percentile of wealth essentially have no influence over what their government does.
It works like this — a moneyed interest such as a bank wants a particular law passed. They hire lobbyists who make donations to and help to raise money for the re-election campaign of a politician. The lobby may also offer this politician a million-dollar job to begin after their term. Lobbyists literally write the law they want and give it to the politician, and the politician does his or her best to get it passed. As the cost of elections rise, so too does the pressure to attend to the biggest donors. Rinse, repeat … and fade. With each election cycle the system is more distorted by money and the average person’s vote carries less weight. This is the game right now for politicians of both parties. It is perfectly legal to buy political influence.
Fortunately California is leading the nation with respect to passing legislation that sheds light on campaign spending. In September both the Assembly and the Senate passed AB 249, the California Disclosure Act. Gov. Brown signed this bill into law Oct. 7.
Government must be accountable to and dependent on you and me, not corporations and moneyed interests.
Check out bipartisan groups like Represent US that address this corruption head on. Their solution is simple, don’t rely on Congress to solve the problem–pass local and state anti-corruption laws so that eventually we elect enough of the right people who can affect change at the federal level.
No one’s issues, right or left, will be properly addressed until we join together to shine a light on election funding.
Lang Waters lives in Nevada City.
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