Some experts say California’s deluge of campaign records may actually make wrongdoing harder to spot.
The Orange County Register (California)
SACRAMENTO, CA — Whenever politicians are confronted with the problem of money in politics, one of them invariably starts talking about disclosure.
It happened last week, when I asked Orange County lawmakers what they thought about the governor’s proposal to ban fundraising during certain parts of the year. Repeatedly, lawmakers told me the solution was more disclosure.
“Full and timely disclosure… will do more to keep the system clean than modifying the time during which contributions are made,” Assemblywoman Mimi Walters said in a typical response.
But is real time disclosure or additional reporting really the answer? California already has one of the nation’s toughest disclosure laws and anyone interested in reviewing the records can easily be buried in an avalanche of data.
In fact, campaign finance experts in California and across the country told me increased disclosure may actually further obscure the influence of money in politics.
“It’s a forest and trees kind of issue,” said Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica. “When you’re investigating campaign interests, you want to see trees. But with disclosure, you’re creating a black forest.”
Heller was careful to say he strongly supports disclosure because it allows you to figure out which special interests are buying influence. But he added it doesn’t stop wrongdoing.
“One of the reasons I know disclosure is problematic is because it’s what all the politicians want,” Heller said.
State law requires campaigns to report the name, address, occupation and employer of anyone who contributes $100 or more. Candidates must file regular reports, and close to an election, contributions of $1,000 or more must be reported within 24 hours.
The law is so stringent that it was ranked best in the nation by a group of academics and think tanks in 2005.
“It’s a good law,” said Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, who helped with the study. “There’s some tweaking that could be done, but not that much more.”
The law, however, has created an imposing mountain of records. I recently requested a copy of Secretary of State’s entire campaign finance and lobbying database, from 1999 to the beginning of this year, and the CD I received contained dozens of tables with hundreds of thousands, even millions, of rows. It contains more than 350 million pieces of data.
Disclosure is based on the notion that voters can watch the money and the actions of their representatives and decide for themselves whether lawmakers are being unduly influenced. But, as any reporter will tell you, the amount of records makes that difficult.
And with a limited number of people doing this work, experts say the irony is disclosure may wind up helping lawmakers hide in plain sight.
“The average citizen is not going to take the time to dig through thousands of campaign records looking for that needle in a haystack,” said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. “If you’re going to have more disclosure, you have to also make sure somebody is watching.”
One person who isn’t concerned about the excess of information is Dan Newman, executive director of MapLight.org, a pioneering Web site that links campaign contributions with the votes of California legislators. MapLight makes connections others have missed — staff found that on June 3, 2003, Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi took $1,000 from the California/Nevada Soft Drink Association and the next day voted against a bill it opposed.
Newman said he’s confident that with today’s database technology, political watchdogs can sift through any stack of records, no matter how high. He did acknowledge, however, that the process takes time: MapLight was in development for 18 months and by the time it was up the data was stale. Staff is working to make it current.
“It is time intensive,” Newman said. “But then, once one organization can do it, it can be shared by everyone.”
In November, voters rejected another proposal for combating money’s influence: publicly financing campaigns. By 3 to 1, Californians didn’t like the idea of using tax dollars to pay for political campaigns, even if it meant eliminating private contributions.
But some say public financing is the solution to political corruption, that it’ll take a major scandal before voters can see its benefits over disclosure. Others advocate giving candidates free television time or free mailers while two Yale professors say contributions should be anonymous.
“There’s a lot of activity,” said Fred Wertheimer, a leading campaign finance reformer in Washington. “But these are tough battles because the status quo benefits incumbents, and they’re the ones who have to vote on it.”
Brian Joseph covers Capitol issues for the Register. His Capitol Watchdog column focuses on government practices. To reach him, call 916-449-6046 or e-mail [email protected]