The problem of money in politics is as real as it is difficult to resolve. But there is a fundamental point on which voters of all stripes should be able to agree: Disclosure is essential for voters to know who is trying to curry favor with public officials. It is non-negotiable.
To that end, Hillary Clinton has an idea worth pursuing. The Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. senator wants to require all publicly traded companies to disclose all political giving. It’s worth doing, even if it counts as only a start.
The arguments over money in politics have continued almost nonstop since 1974, when Richard Nixon was driven from office in the Watergate scandal. And based on the Supreme Court’s wrongheaded conclusions that money is speech and that corporations have the same rights as individuals, that issue has become even more important. Corporations are giving huge amounts of money to candidates and causes. In many cases, they are doing so with “dark money” that has been laundered through nonprofit groups that aren’t required to disclose the sources of their money.
Already, those corporations are starting to get out of that deceitful game, as activists find new ways to identify companies that try to influence government in secret. For example, Google and Shell Oil, which boast of their environmental awareness, have been exposed supporting shadowy organizations skeptical of climate change. Similarly, the insurer Aetna, which had publicly embraced the Affordable Care Act, was discovered to be allied with political committees wanting to kill it.
Still, there needs to be clear public policy and the idea of requiring at least publicly traded companies to report their donations is appropriate. Why shouldn’t shareholders know about that?
Not everyone agrees that disclosure is valuable. Prominent among those critics are giant donors and their mouthpieces who benefit from giving in obvious hopes of secretly influencing public policy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sounded a paranoid alarm about the push for disclosure in a recent news story.
“This orchestrated ‘disclosure’ campaign by opponents of the business community is meant to intimidate corporations from participating in important policy debates, either directly or through trade associations and organizations such as the U.S. Chamber,” the chamber’s spokeswoman, Blair Latoff Holmes, wrote in an email to the Los Angeles Times.
You don’t have to be an “opponent of the business community” – whatever that is – to accept the importance of disclosure in a democracy. Observers from across the political spectrum, including those who oppose restrictions on giving, agree that disclosure is fundamental. It’s not about intimidating corporations, it’s about monitoring public officials to see if they are being swayed by powerful interests. Surely the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has nothing against that.
Of course, issues of money and disclosure cut across many interests and both parties. Clinton and her family have had their own run-ins regarding donations, most recently from millions of dollars given to the Clinton Foundation by foreign governments. At least one of those donations violated the foundation’s ethics agreement with the Obama administration, which wanted to avoid any perception that foreign governments were sweet-talking their way into the good graces of Clinton, then the secretary of State.
The Supreme Court has made it far more difficult for average Americans to influence government or even to know which monied interests are secretly working to do the same. Across-the-board disclosure is an insufficient answer, but it must be the threshold policy regarding any political donations. It is fair to question the motivations of any individual or organization that can’t bring itself even to meet that minimum requirement.