Like clockwork, there’s something voters have come to count on with each election: more and more anonymous advertisements sponsored by mysterious, innocuous-sounding groups, voicing support or opposition for a candidate. These groups are taking advantage of loopholes and lax enforcement and leaving voters to wonder who these people are, where the money came from and about their true agendas. Voters can’t be detectives — they want to know who is behind political ads and what their hidden agenda may be before they vote.
To ensure transparency and strengthen enforcement, we have introduced the Follow the Money Act — the first comprehensive and bipartisan campaign finance reform bill to be offered in the Senate in more than a decade. We believe this bill accomplishes two major goals: It requires full transparency on the part of independent political spenders who intend to influence our vote and imposes costly sanctions on those who believe that evading the law is simply a cost of doing business in the independent political realm. This legislation is necessary to restore the faith of Americans in our democratic process.
Previous attempts to address the need for transparency and disclosure suffered from a myriad of objections — real or imagined. The Follow the Money Act takes pains to address and balance those concerns and employs a whole new approach to closing the loopholes and ensuring transparency — and in doing so, creates a level playing field for all independent political actors, regardless of political alignment.
Our fresh approach tries to take on this problem by rethinking how we look at it: Instead of taking on the increasingly slippery task of trying to define and categorize the actors, we scrutinize them for their actions. The Follow the Money Act requires all independent spenders to play by the same set of transparent disclosure rules — whether you’re a wealthy individual, a well-organized membership group, a shell corporation or tax-exempt social welfare organization. All independent political spenders would need to file the same sort of public reports with the Federal Election Commission that candidates do. The bill would require that, by 2015, the FEC develop a real-time, Web-based disclosure system for candidates and independent actors which will enable the public to “follow the money” more closely.
Unlike previous proposals, the bill also seeks to end the pass-the-buck, bureaucratic foot-dragging on the part of the FEC and the Internal Revenue Service, which have failed to take responsibility to enforce the law when it comes to bogus nonprofits that injected massive amounts of dark money into the 2012 elections. Our law would require the two to work together to strongly enforce our legislation under a consistent enforcement regime that spans both agencies. And, should the IRS and the FEC fail to agree, as has been known to happen, there’s a trigger making the Department of Treasury responsible for sorting out the differences and creating a unified enforcement structure. The law would also provide the IRS and FEC the power to update the rules to stop clever political operatives from creating loopholes in the future.
By no means is this a finished product. From the onset, we relied heavily on public input, and we will continue to do so throughout the legislative processes. In that way, our bill promoting transparency and accountability is still taking shape. In particular, we are exploring additional clear and understandable standards for distinguishing between political advertising, which would be subject to the Follow the Money Act, and legislative advocacy, which is not.
When you dump big money into politics, most Americans believe they should know who you are and how that money is being spent in real time. The Follow the Money Act provides a sensible and realistic solution to the outrageous glut of anonymous campaign cash. It’s a no-nonsense solution that was produced with public input and doesn’t allow anyone an advantage. It’s time to stop the shell games and let voters follow the money.
Lisa Murkowski is a Republican senator from Alaska who has served the U.S. Senate since 2002. Ron Wyden is a Democratic senator from Oregon, serving since 1996.
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