This is going to sound funny coming from someone who spends nearly every waking hour tracking political money in Wisconsin and shining light on the legal bribery that is the trademark of today's politics.
The truth that campaign finance disclosure provides won't set us free.
Don't get me wrong. Disclosure is important. Hell, it's more than important. It's absolutely essential. And there should be more of it. Far too much is hidden. Voters deserve to know who's paying who. Far too much about the financial transactions in politics is concealed from public view.
But while disclosure is necessary, it is not sufficient. Not even close.
According to the conservative Rasmussen polling firm, public approval of Congress is down to 5%. The firm claims a margin of error of plus or minus 3% for this poll, so if you buy what Rasmussen is selling it's possible as few as 2% of Americans think Congress is doing an acceptable job. As pathetic as this is, it's hardly surprising when you consider another of the poll's findings, namely that half of Americans now believe most members of Congress are corrupt.
This underscores the limitations of disclosure as a political reform. When so many are convinced that elected officials are bought, knowing exactly who did the buying is cold comfort.
Packed courts across the country, and the U.S. Supreme Court in particular, have in recent years ruled most forms of campaign finance regulation out of bounds, with the exception of disclosure. In the high court's infamous Citizens United decision, a 5-4 court majority ruled from never-neverland that unlimited corporate election spending does "not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption." And since the prevention of corruption is currently the only court-approved rationale for campaign finance regulation, finding no sign of corruption in unlimited corporate electioneering paved the way for opening the floodgates.
Yet even in a case decided in a fashion as intellectually and morally bankrupt as that seen in Citizens United, eight of the nine justices came down squarely in favor of disclosure. What such clueless judges don't seem to get is that more disclosure will most certainly give rise to a more widespread belief that the system is corrupt. Not to mention a heightened public appetite for reform that goes way beyond disclosure.
People want government officials who are not corrupt. Disclosure alone cannot give us that. It can show us what we don't have. But it cannot give us what we want. People also want campaign financing rules that facilitate broad participation and encourage greater electoral competition, that make it possible for more people from more walks of life to enter the political arena. Disclosure can't give us that either.
People want election campaigns paid for in a way that promotes political independence and thoughtful representation. What we have now is a system that sentences us to elected officials who are hopelessly beholden to undeniably powerful and unquestionably narrow interests. Disclosure can reveal just how narrow these interests really are and it can give us a measure of their power. It cannot straighten out the mess, it cannot broaden the reach of the citizenry's influence.
People want election financing that fosters greater confidence in the system and yields a government that is viewed as legitimate and reflects the consent of the governed. What we have now is a system that has led half of Americans to believe most members of Congress are corrupt. It's not that all these people believe members of Congress are taking old-fashioned bribes every day. It's that people understand full well that yesterday's under-the-table bribery has been replaced by a newfangled over-the-table variety. More disclosure will raise awareness of legal bribery. It won't do away with it.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm all for disclosure. I work for more of it every day. But that doesn't mean that's all I'm for. Democracy's survival requires much, much more.