Adequate disclosure rules: myth the high court bought

In the recent Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on political advertisements supporting candidates in elections, there was only one issue that all but one of the justices agreed upon: the importance of disclosure. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.”

Whether or not you believe that disclosure is the panacea for solving the role of money in politics — I happen to believe it is not — it is naive to think that the current level of transparency for political spending provides anything close to “prompt disclosure” or the detail needed for us to hold public officials accountable. Given the court’s actions, now is the time for Congress to create a new, effective disclosure regime that enables us to get the who, what, why, where and when of political dollars are being spent.

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In this age of 24/7 information, with a few clicks of my mouse, it’s still easier for me to obtain the latest charges on my credit card than it is to find out who is giving millions to my senator. Indeed, the current disclosure system relies on a hodgepodge of reporting requirements that result in some information filed on paper, some online. Relevant data about money in politics is scattered across many government bodies and incompatible databases so that it can’t be combined in a meaningful way. Where it is required to be disclosed, information about money, access and influence is not available in real time and is often delayed until well after it is useful to the public. And much information is simply not disclosed at all.

So what could Congress do to improve transparency? For starters, lawmakers should create a powerful, 21st century-style independent expenditure reporting system that actually gives us immediate access to information on who is spending what —whether directly or through other organizations. Shareholders should also have timely data about corporate political expenditures.

We need to beef up lobbying disclosure requirements so that we get substantive information, in real time, about who is lobbying whom about what and how much they are paid. We need political candidates to report the campaign contributions they receive in a more timely fashion, with better information about lobbyists who are bundling checks to them, and we need them to do it online. Finally, if we want corporations to follow them, we need strong enforcement of all these disclosure rules.

Come November, we can all expect to be bombarded by a tidal wave of political advertising. The least we can demand is that we be able to look online for real-time information about who is behind these efforts to influence our votes.

From Ellen S. Miller, executive director and co-founder, Sunlight Foundation, Washington

Don’t pass measure to limit EPA power

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has proposed legislation that would limit the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency, exposing Americans to continued and potentially increasing levels of toxins in our air from multiple sources such as coal-fired power plants and other commercial sources of pollutants. I urge our senators in Virginia, Mark Warner (D) and Jim Webb (D), to vote no on the Murkowski resolution.

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Lobbyists working for big polluters are behind Sen. Murkowski’s attempt to stop the EPA from protecting our health from greenhouse gases, which medical experts warn are dangerous to our health. All of us, especially people who are already vulnerable to health problems, will only be at greater and greater risks unless we do more to curb greenhouse gas pollution.

From Greg Singleton, Springfield, Va.