Evil lurks in Super PACs

* The California Assembly is making another attempt to require disclosure of donations to political campaigns, and it deserves support.

By Steve Lopez, Commentary
Los Angeles Times, February 29th, 2012

You and I have been here before, with me recommending something you don't want to hear about, even though it'll be good for you.

No, I didn't get another colonoscopy. I'm talking about those three dreaded words: Campaign finance reform.

Have your eyes already glazed over because the subject can be so tediously dull? If so, snap out of it and pay attention, because money in politics is a force beyond evil, and it's on full display all around us right now.

On the national scene, already more than $322 million has been raised in support of candidates for president, with $56 million of that going into Super PACs. Do you know what a Super Political Action Committee is?

It's a slap in your face.

Someone sets up a little club and calls it something like the Apple Pie and Cuddly Kittens Committee or the American Sunshine and Pride Fund, and then the richest people in the world can donate UNLIMITED amounts to the PACs in support of a candidate, so long as they don't coordinate spending the money with the pol's campaign.

We can thank a sadly misguided U.S. Supreme Court decision for this wink-and-nod arrangement, which has already brought us a flood of attack ads and obscene distortions that dumb down national discourse and give any clown with a billionaire friend a fighting chance.

But today, let's scratch an irritation that's closer to home.

One month ago, a modest, perfectly sensible reform proposal came up for a vote in the state Assembly. The California DISCLOSE Act (AB 1148), sponsored by the California Clean Money Campaign, was carried by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica). It proposed that all political advertising for ballot measures be required to carry the names of the top three funders of the ads, along with their logos. Super PACs and the like would also have had to display their top three funders in candidate ads they funded. The bill also would have required ads to list a website where voters could get more scoop on the funders.

In 2010, says Clean Money's Trent Lange, most of the $235 million spent on ballot measures was by "veiled actors hiding behind innocuous-sounding names like Stop Hidden Taxes or the California Jobs Initiative." The largest funders, in both those cases, were oil companies.

Simple enough, right? A baby step, really, so that if voters feel like they're getting mugged, they can at least identify the suspects, whether they're corporations, public employee unions or individuals.

But in Sacramento, the bill was crushed like a cockroach. It died on Jan. 31, failing by two votes to win the needed two-thirds majority when only one Republican (Nathan Fletcher of San Diego) voted for it, and one Democrat (Cathleen Galgiani of Tracy) voted against.

Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Irvine) told The Times the bill ran "afoul of the 1st Amendment." Then he quoted the U.S. Supreme Court, saying "Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority."

Hogwash. How about the tyranny of cynical forces who want to keep voters in the dark?

As Lange notes, a Field poll last fall showed an overwhelming rainbow coalition of support for more disclosure, with 78% of Republicans in favor, 86% of Democrats and 88% of independents. That's why the bill (now called AB 1648) has been reintroduced by Brownley, but this time, San Diego's Fletcher has stepped up to partner with her.

"I don't understand how you can be against transparency and I don't understand how you can be against disclosure," Fletcher told me.

He said that the state Chamber of Commerce lobbied against the bill and that it also made the 1st Amendment argument. But he wasn't buying it.

"When we hide" the source of money, Fletcher said, "we're saying it improperly influences us." I couldn't have said it better.

Brownley said a Greenlining Institute poll found that 59% of voters would be less inclined to vote for a candidate who opposed disclosure. "I think sitting legislators need to have their eyes wide open to statistics like that," said Brownley.

And yet, though she's optimistic about prevailing this time in the Assembly, Brownley and Lange both say Senate approval is no sure thing. It's another shocking example of how out of touch legislators can be with public sentiment.

"To me, nothing is as fundamental to fixing our broken democracy as fixing the corruptive effects of money in politics," said Lange.

Lange is a computer guy who joined Clean Money nine years ago as a volunteer, determined to improve the website and help grow the reform movement. But he got hooked, inspired in part by the nonprofit's thousands of volunteers statewide. Two years ago, he became executive director, and he makes lots of lobbying trips to Sacramento in a convertible Corvette with the license plate CLN MONY.

If he had his way, all campaigns for legislative and statewide office would be paid for with public financing, and Lange said that would cost about $6 per adult. Of course, critics always complain that they don't want their tax dollars paying for candidates they don't know or like. But Lange wonders if the price of coffee and a doughnut is really too much to ask for a system in which special interests would have no greater influence than private individuals.

We're a long way from that ever happening, but the DISCLOSE Act is at least a possibility. You can learn more about the details of the bill, and how to sign a petition in support of it, at http://www.CAclean.org.

One of the more compelling arguments in favor of disclosure is a simple question, and it can be addressed to both legislators and campaign donors:

What do they have to hide?


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