SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Why Full Disclosure Isn't Always Enough
Every now and again, during discussions of political campaigning and its financing, someone suggests to me that the solution to money in politics is simple disclosure.
By that, they mean that political candidates should be allowed to accept any size political contribution from any donor -- whether $1 million from Merrill Lynch or $100 from Merle Haggard -- as long as the donation is promptly disclosed.
Typically, advocates for unlimited donations call for more and better disclosure. In their view, as long as voters can get timely information about who is backing a candidate, let the money flow. It's a democracy, and people are expressing their political thought and preferences, demonstrating their First Amendment rights.
Of course, there is the little issue of whether corporations have rights in the same way that individuals have rights, something that for years has been at the heart of the debate over campaign finance.
But setting aside that thorny issue for a moment, I wonder how many of those who see disclosure as the solution have ever actually dug through a campaign finance report.
Over the years, I've combed through thousands of pages of these things.
During the 2002 U.S. Senate race between Elizabeth Dole and Erskine Bowles, while I was working for the Associated Press, reports stacked in boxes were delivered to my office. In races where millions of dollars are raised by each candidate, reports that are hundreds of pages long with tens of thousands of donors aren't unusual.
Do you want to try to sort through these piles of papers (even if in electronic form), while also actually reporting on candidates' words and deeds?
Then there are the reports themselves.
Candidates and their campaign workers routinely leave off pertinent, required information regarding their donors.
State law requires that campaigns list donors who give more than $100, their occupations, employer and place of residence. But language in the law also allows candidates to make "best efforts" to obtain the information. Sometimes best efforts look a lot like best obscuring.
Not long ago, I came across a campaign finance report that listed Charlie Shelton, owner of one of the largest construction firms in the Southeast, as the owner of Shelton Vineyards. It's not a lie, but his winery probably isn't driving his interest in political contests.
As for failing to list information, state election officials simply don't have the time or staff to force compliance for every line of every report.
The state's campaign reporting schedule also allows candidates to hide donations taken in during the final three months of a campaign, only revealing them less than a week before the election.
The disclosure-only crowd often calls for more frequent reporting using modern computer technology.
But how any of that really takes care of sorting through the scads of money entering political campaigns, and all the motives behind that money, has never been clear.
With the money growing, it never will be.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at email@example.com
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