Congress should pass the Real Time Transparency Act

[by Gloria Bilchik]     capitolwithbow“What if you could get a text or email alert every time a wealthy donor cut a fresh check to your member of Congress?” asks the Sunlight Foundation.  That kind of instant disclosure would go a long way toward exposing who’s wielding [or should I say, “buying”] influence in political campaigns. It seems like a pie-in-the-sky idea, but it’s not. In fact, there’s a bill in Congress right now that could help make that scenario a reality.

It’s called the Real Time Transparency Act. [Remarkably, it has a name that actually describes what it would do–unlike so many Orwellian-named bills whose titles suggest the direct opposite of their intent.] It’s sponsored in the Senate by Angus King [I-ME] and in the House by Beto O’Rourke [D-TX].The bill requires 48-hour disclosure of so-called hard money campaign contributions of $1,000 or more to candidates, committees and parties.

This bill is especially important in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon. In Citizens United, the court declared that money equals speech, leading it to rule that corporations cannot be barred from donating to campaigns. In McCutcheon v. FEC, the court destroyed the last vestiges of campaign-finance sanity, ruling that there should  not be an overall cap on the amount individuals can donate to political parties, candidates and PACs.

At the same time, in his opinion in McCutcheon, Chief Justice John Roberts  asserted that “with modern technology, disclosure now offers a particularly effective means of arming the voting public with information.”  The Sunlight Foundation notes that, while Roberts’ comment is a nod toward the importance of disclosure, but it doesn’t take into account that..

…laws don’t exist to ensure effective, complete and timely disclosure. Right now, we have a system in which the public must wait as long as three months before some contributions are made public; in the case of U.S. Senate candidates, even longer because candidates for Senate still file their campaign reports on paper, delaying disclosure by weeks after reports are due.

Sometimes that delay means voters go to the polls without knowing who contributed to a campaign.

The Real Time Transparency Act isn’t the ultimate solution to campaign-finance reform, of course. There are other actions that must be taken to overturn these two democracy-killing Supreme Court decisions: It’s going to take an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to do that–and that could take quite a while. In the meantime, this bill is a helpful step in the right direction.

I’m less than optimistic about this bill’s chances, for the obvious reasons that the very politicians who would be voting on it are the people who don’t want you to know who their fat-cat donors are. To get this deal done, Congress would probably have to set an effective date far in the future–and my cynical side thinks that our current crop of representatives would be inclined to set such a date for 10 years after everyone currently serving in Congress is dead.

In the meantime, we can at least try to encourage our representatives to do the right thing, right? The Sunlight Foundation offers these suggestions for helping to build momentum:

Sign our petition calling on Congress to pass the bill.

Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, or write a post for your blog. [Or link to this post!]

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