Let the Sunshine In

Citizens United, the worst U.S. Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott, isn’t going away any time soon. It would take either a significant change in the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court, or an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to undo what the Roberts’ court has done. While the fact basis for reconsideration is present – the SCOTUS assumed Congress would mandate full, open disclosure of contributions, and that hasn’t happened – we’re almost certainly stuck with Citizens United for the indefinite future.

So all that is left to those of us who prefer a democracy to an oligarchy is to mandate full, complete disclosure of where the money is coming from. Not just the direct contributions to candidates; disclosure of the presently secret slush funds as well. Congress as presently constituted isn’t going to do that. The 535 members of Congress depend on the current system for election and reelection and aren’t about to bite the hand that feeds them. So a change in disclosure laws is about as likely as a constitutional amendment.

The federal agency in charge of  the enforcement of disclosure laws, the Federal Election Commission, routinely deadlocks on big issues. The composition of the FEC practically guarantees deadlock. So there’s not much help coming from the FEC.

That leaves the Securities and Exchange Commission, the SEC. In August 2011, a group of law professors petitioned the SEC to require all SEC-regulated organizations to disclose the amounts and recipients of their political contributions. The proposal drew more than 1 million comments at the SEC’s website, with the vast majority in favor of the proposal.

The SEC didn’t do anything.

Earlier this month, the disclosure proponents sued the SEC to require it to act on the petition.

On May 19, 2015, a group of some 70 charitable funds wrote to SEC Chair Mary Jo White, asking her to cause the SEC to take action on the August 2011 petition. It may be that a letter from 70 of the most important charitable foundations, stating yet another reason for public disclosure of political contributions, will have more impact. We can hope.

As things stand how, about half of the Standard and Poor’s 100 voluntarily comply with the disclosure proposal. It’s a classic “glass half full” situation: yes, the glass is half full, but it is also half empty, and the companies that refuse to disclose may very well be the ones that have the most to hide.

Secrets, especially secrets in the election process, are deeply harmful to a democracy. In a society already plagued by gross income and wealth inequality, secret funding discourages trust in the legitimacy of government. If politicians are seen as creatures of their secret financial backers, and not as servants of the voters, faith in government will be destroyed.

So if we can’t undo Citizens United, let’s at least do what the SCOTUS mistakenly assumed would be done: let the sunshine in. Let’s find out who is paying how much and to whom.

Because the alternative, sooner or later, is to kiss our form of government goodbye.