Strong opinions, weakly held

Why transparency won’t save us

The response to people worried about the Supreme Court’s cataclysmic decision to lift any limits on political spending by corporations has been that we can be saved by transparency. That’s what the majority argued in their decision, and that argument has been taken up by conservatives who think that more corporate influence on the work of government is a good thing. But transparency involves only corporations documenting how much they spend, and money that goes unspent is really the crux of the matter.

Corporations have powerful levers to pull without spending a dime, given that they have the opportunity to spend as much as they like. First of all, they can threaten to withhold contributions they might otherwise make unless a legislator does their bidding. Secondly, they can threaten to spend on behalf of a politician’s opponent unless they get their way. Neither of those threats must be reported in any way. And, in many cases, the threats do not even need to be made. Politicians know what corporations want, and they now know that they can spend whatever they like to get it. Does a lobbyist for a coal company really need to call a legislator and tell them not to vote to ban mountaintop removal mining?

So we are now in a situation where the influence of corporations has been magnified to an incredible degree even before the first dollar is spent. And no amount of transparency is going to fix that.


  1. There should be a phrase for this: “corporate terrorism”.

  2. Some of that will be inevitable but mostly it sounds like a need for more transparency: why shouldn’t legislators’ call records be public? All of these concerns apply equally even if we could magic away corporate personhood (I’d love that but it seems infeasible) since the rich can do it personally, particularly after the courts get around to acknowledging that that personal contribution limits are unconstitutional.

    I wish we’d focus more on reforms which wouldn’t infringe on speech – even beyond follow-the-money improvements, isn’t it time to reopen the discussion of public campaign financing? Getting politicians out of the need to raise truckloads of cash just to be competitive in an election would make the ability of the rich to write checks less important. I’m also unconvinced that we’ve exhausted the gains from improving disclosure laws (which are much less of an issue constitutionally) particularly now that the web is playing a much larger role than it used to. I’d hope that the prop 8 donor maps are just the beginning of making it harder for people to quietly support things they’d be embarrassed to support publicly.

  3. I would prefer to move toward public financing of campaigns rather than curtailing certain kinds of speech.

  4. I think corporations do have a right to make their case just like individuals do. I also think that removing limits on political spending by corporations is not sufficiently counter balanced by transparency. I also support campaign finance reform, term limits in the house and senate and a balanced budget act in peace time so what do I know. ;o)

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