Shaw: Show us who’s spending the money on campaigns

SHARE Shaw: Show us who’s spending the money on campaigns

In January, activists rallied to mark the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which paved the way for virtually unlimited campaign contributions from corporations, unions and other interests. Photo by Drew Angerer, Getty Images.

I’m not a big R&B fan, but as a good government watchdog I have to appreciate the O’Jays 1974 classic “For the Love of Money,” about the dangers of pursuing “the almighty dollar.”

The song could serve as an anthem for the sorry state of campaign finance today because money is still the driving force in our politics.


As the O’Jays crooned, “Some people got to have it . . . some people really need it.”

And some campaigns definitely get it, in copious amounts, thanks to Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 decision opening the floodgates to virtually unlimited political expenditures by corporations, unions, nonprofits and others.

Here in Illinois, the contribution limits for which reformers fought hard have been circumvented in every major election since their adoption six years ago.

The landscape has indeed changed, so reform efforts have to change too if we’re ever going to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics.

One new battleground is the fight for more disclosure, so at least we can “follow the money,” according to a panel of experts who enlightened us recently at Standing Up to Special Interests, a forum sponsored by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

My takeaway: There’s a lot of disclosure, but not enough.

On the federal level, the most glaring deficiency is that politically active nonprofits don’t have to reveal their donors. This so-called “dark money” exceeded $400 million in the 2012 presidential election.

That lack of transparency has to end.

Illinois has its own blind spots: In some cases we have to wait months — often until after an election —to get independent expenditure details for a campaign season.

Legislation authored by ICPR would require spending reports within days.

It should pass, and Gov. Rauner should sign it.

Panelists at the ICPR forum also lamented the failure of election officials to adequately enforce disclosure laws.

That has to change.

And even disclosures can be opaque: Individual contributions are logged but individual contributors are not, making it hard to establish patterns.

One solution: Give every donor an ID number that accompanies every contribution so it’s easier to identify and aggregate individual giving.

“But disclosure by itself is not enough,” says ICPR executive director David Melton.

He’s also pushing public financing coupled with voluntary spending limits. The model program is New York City, where a pot of public money is used to match small individual donations.

In a February advisory referendum, Chicago voters supported small-donor matching programs, and now ICPR and Common Cause Illinois are exploring pilot programs in the city and a few suburbs.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court equated political money with free speech. Carrying the analogy a step further, small-donor matching programs can lift the voices of everyday people so they’re not drowned out by special interests.

Sadly, big money will continue to be the loudest voice in our elections unless Supreme Court turnover creates a new majority, or there’s a constitutional amendment overriding the Citizens United decision.

Neither is imminent, so let’s fight now for what’s realistic: More disclosure, better enforcement and public financing initiatives.

German statesman Otto von Bismarck put it this way more than a century ago: “Politics is the art of the possible.”

That’s just as true today.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.


Twitter: @andyshawbga

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