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Disclosing money in politics is good for democracy

By Scott Tibbs, May 24, 2013

It is illegal for the government to restrict the content of political speech, although politicians are not above trying to use the power of the state to protect their positions of power by gagging critics. Such restrictions are also direct attacks on basic American values. But the American people have a legitimate interest in knowing who is funding politicians' campaigns, which is why we require candidates for elective office to report contributions and expenditures. This is why it is puzzling that the Wall Street Journal complained on May 21 about stronger disclosure requirements in Texas.

The reason we have disclosure requirements is because we need to know if an elected official might be beholden to special interests. If a member of Congress has a large portion of his campaign funded by donations from individuals and Political Action Committees connected to wind energy, he might be biased when votes on "green energy" come before Congress. (One could say the same about money from Big Oil or any other industry.)

Because so-called "Super PACs" and other groups have been a larger part of the last few election cycles - and will likely expand their influence in 2014 and 2016 - it is important for voters to know who is funding these groups as elected officials will be influenced by the support they are getting from those groups, either in the form of negative or positive campaign advertisements. This is true even though campaigns are usually prohibited from coordinating with outside groups - it is human nature to view your supporters in a favorable light. The more information that is publicly available, the more likely voters can make an informed decision about who to support in a primary or general election.

Mandated disclosure of campaign contributions and spending is not a violation of free speech rights. No one is prohibited from speaking in any form by disclosing contributions and expenses on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate. Disclosure is not prior restraint of speech, nor is it punishment of speech after the fact. Concerns that people who currently donate to outside groups might be "intimidated" could easily apply to direct contributions to candidates themselves, and no one is seriously arguing for removing those disclosure requirements.

Where this is of interest to Hoosiers is a recent report that Indiana scored a "zero" in requirements that political contributions be disclosed. This should not be. It is too late to dive into this issue during this session, but the General Assembly needs to strengthen reporting requirements for outside groups seeking to influence Indiana politics. The voters deserve to know who is donating the money influencing our elections and who might be influencing our politicians.