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Putting an End to Secret Campaign Contributions

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Today, unless I'm pleasantly surprised, Republicans will once again block the Senate from considering the DISCLOSE Act -- a piece of legislation that would bring at least a modicum of transparency to our badly broken campaign finance system.

But let me back up.

Every citizen of a democracy is supposed to have the same say in the decisions our government makes (or, at least, in who gets to make those decisions on our behalf). That's why each of us gets the same number of votes in an election (one). I grew up in Minnesota, where we treasure our tradition of civic engagement -- and our record of having the nation's highest voter participation.

Of course, in a country where running for office is incredibly expensive, the ability to spend money to support candidates and causes (both by contributing directly to them and by making "independent expenditures" on their behalf) is another way to have a say.

But while we each have the same number of votes to cast, we don't each have the same amount of money to give. And for decades, we've debated how to best protect our democratic principles despite that disparity.

Reformers (like me) have argued that we should limit how much influence any one person can gain by limiting how much money any one person can spend. The idea being that unlimited money in politics is inherently corrupting.

Opponents of such reform have disagreed vehemently. The idea being that money is speech -- and since free speech should be unlimited, so should money.

But until lately, there has always been bipartisan agreement that campaign spending -- limited or not -- should at least be transparent. Even as they've fought against spending limits designed to clean up our elections, many conservatives have solemnly assured the American people that they understood sunlight to be the best disinfectant. (In Minnesota, for example, we've had a long and bipartisan tradition of transparency in our campaign finance system.)

Then, in Citizens United, the Supreme Court overturned a century of precedent to find that the right to have a say over elections wasn't, in fact, reserved for citizens after all -- corporations could enjoy it, too. And in FreeSpeechNow.org v. FEC, the Court found that even the weak limits we'd established to prevent the powerful from completely dominating our elections were unconstitutional.

Barring a constitutional amendment (which involves, shall we say, formidable hurdles), a change of heart on the part of the current Justices (extremely unlikely, given their recent ruling in the Montana campaign finance case), or a change in the composition of the Court (not really up to us), reformers have lost the argument over spending limits by a final vote of 5 to 4.

In the 2010 election, these "independent expenditures" by outside groups -- organizations established under obscure provisions of the tax code with names using words like "Future," "Prosperity," and/or "Freedom" in various permutations -- totaled more than $280 million, more than double what they spent in 2008 and more than five times what they spent in 2006. Outside groups spent more than the actual Democratic and Republican party committees.

And already in 2012, we've seen a single individual write multi-million-dollar checks in support of his favorite presidential candidate. We've seen corporations spend tens of millions of dollars on attack ads. We could see $1 billion in outside spending before Election Day.

Worse, there is little sunlight to be found in the post-Citizens United political system. Corporations that want to hide their spending can create shell corporations to contribute unlimited money to a group -- so that when you look at the outside group's fundraising records (which are published only occasionally), you'll see the shell corporation but not the original source of the money.

And that guy who wrote all those seven-figure checks to support his favorite presidential candidate? We only know about that because he announced it himself (adding that some of his future spending would remain secret).

And because none of this spending is transparent, none of these spenders (or the candidates who profit from their spending) can be held accountable. We simply don't know who is wielding all this financial power in this year's elections. We just know it isn't us, the people. That's a system in need of disinfecting.

Which brings me back to the DISCLOSE Act. This bill doesn't overturn Citizens United. It doesn't limit how much money individuals or corporations can spend on independent expenditures. All it does is require that this spending be disclosed publicly. It reflects what used to be a bipartisan consensus around the effectiveness of transparency and disclosure in avoiding corruption.

But today -- unless, again, I'm pleasantly surprised -- all the Republicans in the Senate, including those who have specifically called for more disclosure in our system, will once again block it from proceeding.

In our country, a few have a lot more money than the rest. In our political system, money is power. And that means a few can have a lot more power than the rest. That's bad news for everyone else -- and for our democracy itself. And although we've always argued over how best to prevent that from happening, today's vote is yet another sign that some have decided to embrace that shift instead.