Dan Lawlor: Transparency & Insiders
Thursday, July 05, 2012
“The insider's club continues to thrive; its members have made full recoveries from the financial meltdown and the Great Recession – if they were even thrown off their stride at all.” -Douglas Schoen
In 2010, the Supreme Court's Citizens United Decision changed the game of politics. The court ruling allows independent groups to spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose federal candidates. The Court found that restricting the campaign spending of unions or corporations was the stifling of free speech.
Believe it or not, little Rhody has made a small step in combating this shadow world of unchecked financing. Common Cause RI, the local branch of the good government reform group, and the Brown affiliate of Democracy Matters, a national student organization that works to get money out of politics, successfully lobbied to have the “Transparency in Political Spending Act (TIPS)” passed in the legislature.
TIPS highlights include: 1. Political ads must identify the top 5 donors to their sponsor organization, but only when the organization spends over a certain threshold of their annual budget ($15,000 or 10%) on political activity 2. All disclosed information must be available to the public in a use friendly way. Theoretically, the user friendly database is supposed to be via an online system that may or may not be in gear for this election. 3. All donors must be revealed within 24 hours in the last 7 days before an election.
As the General Assembly Law reads, "The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC has ... allow[ed] unlimited political spending by outside groups via independent expenditures. This spending is often extremely difficult or impossible to trace, being funneled through “shadow groups” that are able to avoid many current campaign finance disclosure regulations."
For John Marion, Executive Director of Common Cause, "The idea behind greater disclosure is to give the public the chance to judge who the speaker is. The Supreme Court has declared that you cannot limit political spending because it is speech. By requiring greater disclosure, especially in the advertisement itself which this bill requires, voters can judge what economic interest might be behind the message."
As Emily Koo, a Texas native and past president of the local Democracy Matters, puts it, "There were no disclosure requirements in Rhode Island for these so-called 'independent' expenditures. Our goal was to shed some light on the process and make clear who funds a particular ad or candidate."
For disclosure, as a student, I was involved with Democracy Matters. At the time our focus was for public financing of elections, to eliminate the octopus tentacles of special interests from campaigning. Under the leadership of Tim Syme and Koo, Democracy Matters began looking to promote a low-cost, tangible, good government proposal. Syme notes, "Public financing is a long term battle whose fortunes ebb and flow; with the state's current fiscal crisis, we knew it would be an even harder sell right now. We shifted to disclosure reform as an urgent response to the post-Citizens United legal climate that opened the door to unlimited independent spending in RI elections. But we haven't given up on public financing..."
As Koo mentions, "Post- Citizens United, we began brainstorming what could be our next step. What could we do here in RI to challenge Citizen United?”
The bill's main champion in the House was freshman representative Chris Blazejewski and the lead Senate Sponsor was Juan Pichardo. Back in February, the powerhouses of Speaker Fox, President Paiva Weed, and Governor Chafee all endorsed the proposal.
Marion had this to say, "I found legislators very sympathetic to the idea of greater disclosure of independent political spending. No one knows campaigns better than elected officials. Likewise, I've found legislators very upset about the Citizens United decisions, and when you tell them that there was an 8-1 concurring majority opinion in that case upholding disclosure laws, they recognize that this is our only outlet for trying to cope with the flood of third party money in our elections."
To their credit, the Providence City Council and the RI Senate have both passed a resolution stating that Congress should work to address the Citizens United decision.
Marion notes, "The reports will be filed within 24 hours of the expenditure being made, if that occurs within 30 days of the election. Otherwise they'll be due within 7 days, which is the current requirement for the Board of Elections rules governing disclosure."
Question! How do we find these disclosure forms? Marion noted, "They will (hopefully) be available on the Board of Elections website, although that will have to be worked out by the Board."
Our system only works when people are active. Being active does not only mean you need to run for office or support candidates (though both are important). It does mean you need to go to hearings, community groups, make a ruckus, read these disclosure forms (and demand that they be put online as soon as possible) and get large groups of your neighbors angry and involved. We need active movements in our state to hold political powers accountable, at the ballot box, at the hearings, on committees, in planning groups.
All that said, good job to the legislature for passing this new law – at 3:15 am on the last day of the session.
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