When I wrote two weeks ago about how I try to concentrate on the access issue, not the underlying controversy, when lending citizens a hand in understanding FOIA, I did not intend to make it one of a two-part series. Nonetheless, two events have me revisiting the notion today.
First, campaign finance and disclosure was the subject of a panel at the National FOI Coalition conference I attended over the weekend in Madison, Wisc. Second, I will be a guest on the “Hearsay with Cathy Lewis” radio show at noon today, and one of the topics will be campaign finance.
Discussions of campaign finance usually start from the assumption that there is a direct correlation between campaign donations and corruption or undue influence. In other words: money in politics is bad; more money is politics is worse. And, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, that assumption is expanded to specifically target at corporations. Money from corporations is exceptionally bad.
Some of the panelists and the moderator at the Madison conference not only agreed with this assumption, but were willing to take it further to suggest that a constitutional amendment be adopted to somehow limit or prohibit corporate contributions.
Here’s where I become Switzerland.
My bottom line -- and that of many of the other access advocates in the room -- is that it is not for me to decide whether political contributions are bad or good or not so bad or not so good. What I want is for those contributions to be disclosed.
The public has a right to know who is giving money to whom and how much. Armed with that information, the public can then draw its own conclusions. Maybe that conclusion will be that money in politics is bad, as the panelists had concluded, but maybe not.
And here are a couple of examples of how different conclusions can be drawn.
* Corporation X has given $100,000 to the campaigns of both the Democratic and Republican candidates in two state Senate districts. Say the Republican wins one and the Democrat wins one. What if a bill comes along that Corporation X favors and one Senator supports it but the other one opposes it. Has the former been bought off? Is the latter exhibiting uncommon rectitude? Or is it possible that their votes have little or nothing to do with the money Corporation X gave them and more to do with that Senator’s political ideology or with the needs and preferences of the Senator’s constituents?
* Corporation A is evil. They make toys for children intentionally designed to break and to injure the child. They probably put razor blades in teddy bears, for goodness sake! They’ve given a delegate a $50,000 contribution. Meanwhile, Corporation B is saintly. They’ve created a process that with a simple press of a button will make all the ocean’s water drinkable, and at no cost! They’ve given the same delegate a $100,000 contribution. And guess what? The delegate votes for a bill that will give Corporate A and hundreds of other coporations a tax break if they use green energy. The delegate also votes for a bill that will specifically benefit Corporation B and only Corporation B. Has money corrupted the delegate, even though the work of Corporation B will benefit all of humanity?
The point is that corruption and undue influence is often in the eye of the beholder. We must all decide what is OK and what is too much. And to make that decision, we need to have the information made available to us. In Virginia, which has very loose regulations when it comes to how much you can give to a candidate, the information has nonetheless been available upon request at the State Board of Elections.
And then, along came the Virginia Public Access Project, which put all that information online into a sliceable, diceable format that lets users examine the intersection of money and politics in any number of ways. VPAP does not tell the user what opinion it should forumlate from viewing this information; it merely presents the information and the user is left to formulate those opinions on his own.
VPAP would not exist if the information was not public. It is imperative that access to campaign finance information be kept open. If you think it’s important to know who is giving how much to whom, you should also care about access to public records. When you support VCOG, you are supporting that right of access since we are in the General Assembly every year lobbying for pro-access bills and against anti-access bills.
Decide for yourself, but ensure that the tools are available to you and your fellow citizens.