After losing the 2004 Presidential election, a group of us here started a state-registered PAC. The point of the PAC was to find, promote and elect local candidates who share our views.
The PAC works like this: we collect twelve dollars a year from anyone who wants to join. We spend the money to promote the candidates and causes we support. We’re all volunteers.
I’m the treasurer of the PAC. I’m also a lawyer in private practice. In Ohio, I have to file a campaign finance report at least annually but more often quarterly, depending on PAC activity and the number of elections in any given year.
If I don’t meet the filing deadline (which happened, once) I have to file a form to request an extension. I have hand-delivered this extension request to the county Board of Elections because I wanted to see it time-stamped, so I wouldn’t fret all weekend. I have also sat bolt upright in bed trying to recall if I did indeed attach the receipt for the candy we purchased to pass out at a parade, an episode of obsessive second-guessing every lawyer reading this will recognize.
I’m in favor of campaign finance disclosure, and sunshine laws in general, so I do not mind spending the 40 minutes or an hour it takes to compile the report and file it. In fact, our PAC members enthusiastically supported Jennifer Brunner for Secretary of State, and Jennifer Brunner tightened up the disclosure rules. She ran on it.
The PAC filing is a public record, so anyone in this county who wants to know who we are or who and what we’re backing may read the filing. This is a majority Republican county and I live and work here, as do all of the members of the PAC. Every single elected official countywide is a Republican, with the exception of the mayor of an outlying burg and a member of the school board, and all our PAC donors are Democrats.
Having said all that, I read things like this:
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has amended his financial-disclosure forms after a liberal group, Common Cause, said he was failing to report the employment of his wife, conservative activist Virginia Thomas. In filings dated Friday, Justice Thomas asked court officials to amend disclosures going back to 1989, when he served as a federal appellate-court judge. An item on the forms asks judges to disclose any “noninvestment income” for their spouse. The form asks only for the name of the employer or other party paying the spouse and doesn’t seek a dollar figure.
Justice Thomas had checked “none” for that item, but now he wants the forms to reflect the names of the employers for whom Mrs. Thomas worked, including the Heritage Foundation from December 1998 through October 2008 Justice Thomas wrote that the information about his wife’s employment “was inadvertently omitted due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions.”
Federal campaign spending by groups other than candidates and parties this election cycle has far outpaced similar spending from the last midterm election and could rival the 2008 presidential campaign. But with recent decisions by the Supreme Court and the Federal Elections Commission, it has become harder to know whose dollars they are.
We went from 98% disclosure in 2004 to 32% disclosure in 2010, after Citizens. It sure has become “harder to know”!
I know Justice Thomas’ inadvertent omission isn’t a campaign finance question, but I do wonder where we’re going with this.
Did we reach some anti-transparency political consensus in this country that I somehow missed? Is sunlight not, in fact, the best disinfectant? See, I don’t think we did. I think most people agree that more information is better than less information, when making a decision on elected leaders. Yet, somehow, we ended up with a situation where local, individual activists are named where they live and work, and national corporate and moneyed interests are carefully protected.
It’s just incredibly dispiriting. If the objective here was to create cynicism and hopelessness in individual citizens, we succeeded. That we did that in the name of protecting and promoting political speech is obscene.