Voters’ only recourse: Stronger disclosure laws

Americans like to believe that people just like us, who respond to a reasonable or righteous argument, govern our great nation.

The U.S. Supreme Court undercut that fantasy last week in its 5-4 decision on McCutcheon v. FEC. That decision chipped off another piece of the nation’s campaign finance laws. It ruled that limits on contributions violate our free-speech rights.

Congress passed a law in 1971 and amended it in 2002 that limited individuals to giving $48,600 to candidates and another $74,600 to committees. The court left those limits in place but freed wealthy contributors to give to as many candidates and committees as they like.

The major effect of the court’s ruling may be an even a bigger glut of candidate-bashing television advertising — yes, it could get worse — and more glossy hit pieces stuffed through your mail slot.

If that were the only ill effect of the ruling, we could possibly bear it. Americans aren’t so gullible as to robotically do whatever the voices shouting from their televisions tell them to do.

But additional obnoxious television advertising is the least of our worries.

We are concerned that after McCutcheon the already outsized influence of the nation’s wealthiest individuals and corporations on Congress will grow larger, and possibly lead to wider income inequality.

Larger amounts of money will now flow to hand-picked candidates, enabling them to outspend their opponents and win elections, after which they’ll be expected to vote and introduce legislation that pleases their big donors. If not, they’ll face a primary challenge in the next election, and guess where the money will go.

That doesn’t cross the line into corruption, according to Chief Justice John Roberts, because it isn’t a direct “quid pro quo.” The court’s majority sees no connection between large campaign contributions and how lawmakers vote.

The court’s narrow vision doesn’t reflect reality. Open government, nonpartisan organizations such as Maplight.org and the Sunlight Foundation have documented that, on key issues, how certain lawmakers vote does correlate with the interests of the industries or interests that donated to their campaign.

People know intuitively that the lawmakers who are most responsive to contributors’ special interests will attract the most money and, as a result, gain more power within their party.

The solution is greater transparency. In the post-McCutcheon world, voters’ only recourse is to make stronger demands for campaign finance disclosure laws. Knowing where the money is going provides vital information to those of us who give only our vote.

We call again on Sen. Harry Reid to allow a vote on legislation that would mandate electronic filing of campaign-finance reports, a process used by members of the U.S. House of Representatives and state and local elected officials.

When the U.S. Supreme Court puts politics up for sale, citizens have a right to know who’s buying.