“I’m [corporate CEO’s name here], and I approve this ad.” That’s a line that could become a new campaign-ad mantra, if Congress passes the Democrats’ new campaign-finance bill this year. Under the bill, corporations that run political ads (as blessed by this year’s controversial Supreme Court decision), would have to put their CEOs on-camera to acknowledge responsibility. The bill also might require the same visibility for top contributors to the ad campaign.
I see this as a step in the right direction toward financial disclosure in campaigns. But is it enough? In my ideal world, this legislation wouldn’t be necessary, because campaigns would be publicly financed. However, in the real world, support for public financing has proven elusive, and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has put a serious chill on the public-financing notion. (Remember: President Obama himself rejected the estimated $84 million available to publicly finance his 2008 campaign, choosing instead to raise $650 million on his own, and taking campaign expenditures to the highest levels ever.) So, baby steps like on-camera CEOs may be all we can get, for now.
Other provisions of the bill seem helpful, as well, in adding some sunlight to the naturally shadowy world of campaign finance. Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) plans to introduce the bill later this year. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) is expected to be the sponsor in the Senate. According to Hotline On Call, the bill would:
require corporations, unions and other outside groups to disclose within 24 hours when they have engaged in campaign-related activity and when they transfer money to other groups intended for use in campaign-related activity. The groups would also have to disclose campaign activity in already-scheduled reports to shareholders.
The legislation would also prohibit spending by any corporation that is more than 20% owned by a foreign entity. Companies that hold contracts with the government for more than $50K, and any business that has not paid back TARP funds would also be banned from spending.
Is there anything else to be done? Between elections, it would be helpful if news media made a more concerted effort to link legislators’ Congressional speeches and votes to the campaign contributions they’ve received. The Washington Post stands out for its efforts in this direction, and a number of organizations and websites offer excellent reporting on this subject. But I’d like to see all media outlets, when quoting politicians, add revealing campaign-finance context, such as: “Senator X, who received $350,000 in campaign contributions from the banking industry between 2004 and 2009, called the financial-regulation bill a bad idea for America.”
None of these disclosures would be as powerful as requiring Congressional representatives and state legislators to emulate NASCAR drivers and display on their suits the logos of their corporate sponsors and political action committee donors. But that would be too much to hope for.