Sunshine Week promotes open government

Published 9:17 am Friday, March 11, 2011

This Sunshine Week (March 13-19), a time when we reflect on the public’s right to know and the importance of open government. Last year, in two landmark decisions—Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and, subsequently, Speech Now v. Federal Election Commission—the Supreme Court radically altered longstanding campaign finance disclosure requirements, ultimately giving corporations the right to spend as much as they want on campaign ads—often without disclosing the donors who funded the ads. As a result of that decision, spending on American elections now looks more like a money laundering scheme than democratic self-expression. “Dark money” spending to elect or defeat candidates in the 2010 midterms topped $450 million dollars, or about 15 percent of total spending on elections. Of that amount, $126 million came from secret donors.

After the Citizens United decision, the White House and Democratic lawmakers rallied around a bill, the DISCLOSE Act, to create transparency for the new money being unleashed into our political discourse. Republicans blocked the bill in the Senate. And so far, no action has been taken by the 112th Congress to address this problem.

If you think spending on the 2010 election broke records, wait until the 2012 race heats up later this year. So long, campaign disclosure. Hello, unlimited secret spending. The good news is there is a promising way to counteract this problem. One key ingredient to empowering the public’s right to know is the Internet. The other is demand.

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Public pressure does affect Congress. A groundswell of support convinced Congress to let us all “read the bill” by posting bills on the Internet before consideration. The House even passed a rule this year requiring all legislation to be publicly available 72 hours before Congress takes action. It’s time to put the heat on the 112th Congress to pick up where the last Congress left off. Congress should require real disclosure for political spending, so anyone can see on a government website who is behind the torrent of spending in American politics. Furthermore, the laundering of contributions must be avoided, by requiring donors to organizations that make electioneering communications to also disclose their donors. For this disclosure to be meaningful, all of this information must be posted online in real time.

This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech; it’s about empowering all Americans to know who is trying to influence their vote.

Likewise, the public has a right to know how special interests and lobbying help shape legislation—for better or worse. The solution is meaningful lobbying disclosure reform, so journalists and citizens alike can “follow the action,” even if they can no longer follow all of the money. Online reporting of lobbying information is critically important in today’s Washington. We need better lobbying disclosure laws to create real-time, online disclosure for lobbyists’ activity, so we know what’s happening while it’s happening.

We can’t let our democracy go to the highest bidder. Let’s put the pressure on to redefine the public’s right to know. – The Sunlight Foundation