FULL DISCLOSURE

08.11.14

In 2014, You Can Still Buy a Senate Seat

Lawmakers in Washington as so beholden to special interest money that they won’t pass basic disclosure laws. Thankfully some states are taking the lead on campaign finance disclosures, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t buy a Senate seat in Georgia.

Leaving aside for the moment the debate over whether or not individuals, corporations or nonprofits should be able to give an unlimited amount of money to a political candidates, shouldn’t we at least know who they are and when they do it?

Our federal representatives are so controlled by the money they receive that they have not been able to pass legislation requiring simple disclosure of contributions from outside groups.

So, as is the case with many other issues these days, the states are stepping in when the federal government demonstrates no capability to lead. Which is pretty much all the time, on every issue.

Last week, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a reasonable disclosure law requiring all groups making independent expenditures—that is, money for campaign ads and the like—to disclose their donors within seven days, or within 24 hours if it is 10 days or less before an election. Additionally, the top five donors of more than $5,000 must be listed in advertisements.

Let’s take a look at the kind of problem the lack of any federal action encourages.

Recently, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, David Perdue, came from behind and won a tightly contested runoff against a former congressman, Jack Kingston. And it turns out he did so with the help of more than $2 million in advertising attacking his opponent that came from a couple of political organizations based in Ohio, one of which was formed in 2011 with the express purpose of “promoting a stronger economic climate in Ohio.”

So we now have a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Georgia whose margin of victory was absolutely supplied by, um, we have no idea.

Would it surprise you to learn there is a loophole in federal disclosure requirements? Technically, a political action committee is supposed to disclose its donors. But tax-exempt “social welfare” nonprofits do not. And, guess what? Nearly all the money that was dumped into the PACs that funded the George Senate race came from two nonprofits.

So we now have a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Georgia whose margin of victory was absolutely supplied by, um, we have no idea. 

For all we know, Perdue may a terrific guy and a potentially great U.S. senator. But it sure doesn’t instill faith in our system, or encourage voters to participate, when unknown special interests from outside a state can swoop in and affect the outcome of an election.

And believe me, this is not just happening in Georgia. It’s happening in most high-profile political races, with the rare exception of those where the candidates have engaged in agreements to ban outside funding, or are considering pledges to disclose all “dark money” funding.

So, as the Georgia race just proved, you really can buy a U.S. Senate seat. And, while buying a Senate seat may be constitutionally protected thanks to the Citizens United decision, there are no similar protections for doing so anonymously.

So thank you, Massachusetts, for invoking in action the words of the former Supreme Court Justice Luis D. Brandeis: “Sunlight is best disinfectant.”