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Minnesota 2020 Journal: More Campaign Finance Transparency Needed

April 11, 2014 By John Van Hecke, Publisher

Minnesota conservative activists wasted no time trying to leverage the U.S. Supreme Court's recent campaign finance ruling. In McCutcheon v FEC, the Roberts court removed contributors’ aggregate contribution limits in a campaign cycle. This week, local conservatives announced a similar state campaign finance law challenge, removing special source contribution limits.

In the post-Watergate campaign reform era, there’s never been a better time to be a well-heeled contributor. If you possess considerable wealth and a strong desire to fund political campaigns, the world is your oyster. The rest of us? That’s a different story with a harder, longer slog forward.

It’s important to remember that we enjoy unparalleled rights in this county. Under the U.S. Constitution, when it comes to political opinion, we can shoot our mouths off about almost anything. I can call every President, Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader deeply complicit war criminals whether I’m posting to my blog, writing a thoughtful letter-to-the-editor or elbowed up at O’Gara’s Bar in St Paul without fear of imprisonment. Most citizens of most other nations do not enjoy this privileged protection.

But, what do we do with freedom of speech guarantees? Mostly, it turns out, very little. When the McCutcheon decision was announced, it was met by frustrated shrugs. Very thoughtful public thinkers and writers wrote smart columns in major national news publications but they clearly weren’t expecting to stoke simmering public ire. Mostly they seemed resigned to registering their objections for posterity’s record. A week later, mainstream reaction is best summarized as “meh.”

The collective shrug reflects a judicial reality. The McCutcheon case further articulates the Court’s arguments in the earlier landmark Citizens United decision. Free speech rights, the Roberts Court majority ruled, trump money regulation. McCutcheon essentially globs more icing on that cake.

Since restrictions of political speech’s regulation seem destined to fall, what are the rest of us, concerned about concentrated wealth’s unrestricted influence on political decision making, going to do? Dangling the promise of public financing in return for contribution and/or spending limits suggests one route. I’m not sure that, given well-financed opposition, policymakers are willing to commit enough public resources to make public financing an enticing alternative. To work, public financing can’t provide a little money. It would need to be enough money to buy more television advertising than campaigns are currently able to raise. Frankly, that’s unlikely.

As a result, we’re left with the harder, longer march toward democratic progress. We have to convince roughly 60 percent of Americans that big money financing conservative campaigns isn’t creating policy benefitting the 60 percent’s lives. And, that conservative policy is making all lives more difficult.

This is a generational challenge on par with the anti-smoking campaigns, the stop-highway-littering effort and Smokey the Bear’s forest fire prevention consciousness raising. We’re going to have convince people that a few campaign funders providing the campaign money and, by extension, calling the policy shots, is bad for our future. We must relentlessly repeat ourselves. We’re going to have to make the case, over and over, of ill consequences and change’s necessity. It won’t be easy nor quickly realized.

Start by understanding that everything achieved through greater campaign finance disclosure is woefully inadequate. It’s great to have federal and state databases recording campaign contributions and expenditures. But, nobody really accesses them, at least not to significant effect. Even periodic reports examining aspects of campaign fundraising and spending, crafted to gauge policy agendas manipulated through electoral financing, aren’t enough if the report sits on the research group’s coffee table. We must better communicate the problem.

Not so long ago in Minnesota, graft was tolerated. Welcomed, even. Graft is the use of government position for personal financial gain. Its ubiquity remains the case in most of the world, understood as the way things get done. Need a permit processed faster? Clip a fifty dollar bill to the paperwork. Slip a finsky to the parking enforcement officer to look the other way. Or, in an egregious case a few years, sell President Obama’s vacated Illinois US Senate seat to the highest bidder.

Now, graft is unacceptable behavior, robustly punished. We are much better off with strong, professional civil, public safety and law enforcement services. It’s time to apply the same expectation to big money in politics. Wealthy donors have every right to express opinion but drowning out my voice and those of my neighbors tips policy consideration towards concentrated wealth’s interests and away from the 99 percent’s. That’s not good for the democracy.

Minnesota and the nation need greater campaign finance transparency. Candidly, efforts must start with the philanthropic community because conservatives in government will block public funding. Good public policy flows from an honest assessment of need. In turn, unbiased data drives definition of need. It’s time to start kicking that rock over, exposing it sunshine. Daily, not once every two years.

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