Washington still needs more transparency
Louis Brandeis was partially right more than a century ago when he declared, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
Sometimes more is required than mere disclosure. But transparency is vital in a Democratic system. More disclosure is one of the few steps that might marginally appeal to a deeply polarized and cynical electorate.
This requires more executive, congressional and legal actions and more media pressure.
Start with the billions of dollars of dark, secretive money that special interests pour into federal elections. This is a scam where so-called social welfare non-profits can devote up to 49 percent of their spending on political causes and candidates. Because of the non-profit status, they don’t have to reveal which fat cats are picking up the tab. You can bet the political recipients know.
“Disclosure is not a panacea for campaign money,” acknowledges Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the Committee for Responsible Ethics in Washington. “But if we know where the money is coming from, people can make more informed decisions.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the chief cheerleader for dark money — under the guise of privacy — but Open Secrets, which tracks campaign financing, estimates there was more than $1 billion of secret money in 2020 — and the majority of it went to Democrats.
When the Internal Revenue Service eight years ago tried to clarify what really is permissible, politicians went ballistic. Congress specifically prohibited the agency from touching their dark money racket.
In its ill-advised Citizens United decision, which opened the spigots of special interest monies, the Supreme Court specifically said the corrective for any problems was disclosure.
One check on the corporate dark money is for the Securities & Exchange Commission to require publicly held companies to disclose their political contributions. If necessary, Congress should pass enabling legislation.
The voting reform measure currently before the Senate would curb dark money and mandate other disclosure provisions — but with passage uncertain, the lack of transparency needs to be highlighted legislatively and politically.
In the executive branch, the Biden administration has moved to reverse the pervasive secrecy during the Trump years. The president restored the tradition of releasing his tax returns; Trump repeatedly broke his promise to do so. When waivers are granted for ethics restrictions, they have to be made public within ten days.
All White House visitor logs now must be made public. There’s a big loophole though: Virtual meetings, used more extensively now, don’t have to be made public. There are top White House officials with close ties to special interest lobbyists; the public should know as much as possible about any contacts with these interests, whether in person or on Zoom.
Biden deserves credit for going “much further than Trump,” Bookbinder told me, “but there’s a way to go.”
I think Merrick Garland is an ideal Attorney General; his calm demeanor belies an intellectual and moral toughness.
But while protecting departmental or executive prerogatives, there is no reason for the department to oppose a judge’s demand to publicly release the memo that former Attorney General William Barr used to justify absolving Donald Trump of obstruction of justice during one of his impeachment proceedings.
It recently was revealed that the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed phone records of top congressional Democrats and their families; they were critics of Trump. Both Attorneys General — Jeff Sessions and Barr — and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein denied any knowledge.
Either someone is lying or there was a rogue operation inside the Department of Justice. The public needs an answer.
Congress illustrates that disclosure isn’t always a panacea or even necessarily the best disinfectant. Members have to disclose stock trading, but we don’t know what inside information they might have had to make those transactions. A year ago, it came out that several senators made lucrative deals on COVID-affected stocks. They claimed, unpersuasively, that it wasn’t connected to any briefing they had on the pandemic outlook.
There is an obvious solution.
Members of Congress should be barred from holding individual stocks. President Biden is putting his assets only in mutual funds, annuities, U.S. Treasuries or residential real estate. Members of the House and Senate should do likewise.
There also needs to be more media pressure on disclosures. When I read stories about Saudi Arabia or a Wall Street firm mounting a lobbying blitz, I want reporters and editors to name names: Who are the lobbyists? Tell us — specifically — what some of the Biden-connected K Street crowd is doing.
None of this would limit anyone’s political participation, and it’s not going to send any lobbyist or member of Congress into bankruptcy.
It would bring a little more sunshine.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.
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