The U.S. Supreme Court has been consistent over the years: Americans have a right to contribute what they wish to the political candidates and causes of their choice. And the court’s ruling in the Citizens United case in 2010 made clear that, where political contributions are concerned, businesses and unions are “people,” too.
It’s a ruling that continues to make many of us uncomfortable, however, and the discomfort grows during election season. The airwaves, in particular, are filled with advertising from outside organizations, some of it downright shameful, that makes all sorts of wild claims about candidates and issues, and it can be nearly impossible to find out who is paying for the stuff.
There is a solution, however. That’s to require everyone, from not-for-profit to union, to disclose who or what made large donations to political efforts and to make that information public quickly. That’s just what the Follow the Money Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would do.
It would require reporting of any spending over $10,000 in a two-year election cycle and would require disclosure of donations of $1,000 and up, a limit set to allow smaller donors to remain anonymous. Independent spending and donations by everyone from labor unions to Indian tribes to superPACs would be subject to disclosure, and tax status would no longer allow some donors to hide their activities.
Moreover, it would require the Federal Elections Commission, beginning in 2015, to use a real-time system that would allow the public to see both donation and spending reports nearly immediately within 48 hours in some cases and within 10 days in some others. It would not require disclosure of such things as membership lists, however, unless members themselves donated more than $1,000.
Wyden and Murkowski have the right idea. As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in another 2010 case about elections, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage.” That’s a far better approach than simply attempting to deny a big portion of American society the right to speak out on matters that affect that society.