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August 1, 2015

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Jon Ralston:

Only sensible campaign reform: Real-time reporting

Super PACs will destroy the world! Sheldon Adelson is buying the White House! There’s too much money in politics!

Let me say now what I have been longing to say for years in response to this tabloid-headline-level volume: Stop the whining!

As McCain-Feingold proved and Citizens United cemented, you cannot constitutionally limit the amount of money in politics, so stop bleating about it. That’s not even the seminal problem in campaigns. It’s not the amount of money; it’s the amount of undisclosed money, or at least the amount not disclosed in a timely way.

It took me a while to get here. As a young political reporter, I, too, lamented the lack of effective campaign finance reform and wondered how limits could be put on fundraising. But that pesky First Amendment and the Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited spending by individuals in campaigns — along with years of experience — have persuaded me otherwise.

I have decided that the best reform that could have the greatest, salutary impact on the political process is to allow unlimited spending, but — and this is no small but — the contributions must be immediately disclosed on the Internet.

What does immediately mean, you ask? That’s not so important, but no later than 72 hours. In most cases, 24 hours seems reasonable, especially for major races.

There is not one legitimate reason to oppose this reform. Not one. Unless, of course, you are an incumbent who doesn’t want to have to disclose what money he or she received in proximity to a vote or you are a major donor worried that it might look as if you are trying to buy influence in proximity to a vote.

That brings me to a corollary of this reform: Because folks would not want to be exposed for giving or receiving large sums near legislative or executive actions, the amount of money would decrease. You don’t believe me? Well, we will never know…

What incumbents count on is that the public — maybe too many of you reading this! — doesn’t really care or get agitated about campaign finance reform. They don’t know the abstruse rules, deadlines, strictures. They figure too much is hidden, too many big-money donors control everything.

But what if they — or we intrepid media types — didn’t have to wonder, didn’t have to wait for disclosure deadlines to see who is giving to politicians? This kind of immediate sunshine could have an even more disinfecting effect in local and state politics than in national politics, although it would have an impact on both. A couple of examples:

• In federal races, congressmen and senators — and their opponents — only have to report their donors every three months.

• In Nevada, elected officials and their opponents have to file a report in January, then not again until June and then not again until October.

Not even the most diligent member of the media would have the time to track back after these reports are released and try to find all the nexuses. But if Exxon wanted to give $5 million to a congressman, let it happen, so long as it is immediately disclosed. If SEIU wants to give $5 million to a senator, let it happen, so long as it is disclosed.

The same rules would apply to campaign spending, too, thus avoiding the kinds of problems that have been well-documented, most recently by my colleague Anjeanette Damon.

Itemized expenses, showing where money has specifically been spent, would have to be posted with alacrity. Why would this be problem?

That brings me to a final point.

This kind of reform petrifies politicians and their patrons. They don’t want real-time reporting of their donations because they fear how it might be misconstrued — or, worse, rightly construed.

Here in Nevada, I believe Secretary of State Ross Miller (and Dean Heller before him, I think) would propose this idea if they thought there was any chance it would pass. But it was hard enough for Miller to push through web campaign reporting last session, with lawmakers publicly wailing about a reform provision to mandate a cooling-off period. Why can’t we lobby our friends after we’re term-limited?

One poison pill used here is that supposedly too many rural lawmakers don’t have web access, and so this would unfairly burden them. Really? The great Nevada expanse is wide and often deserted, but you can find an Internet connection if you need one.

I repeat: There is no good reason to oppose this. No good reason, but plenty of bad ones.

This is the only reform that makes sense and actually would change behavior. How do I know? Because I know politicians and donors, and I know how they think.

So stop whining. You really want less money in politics? Then let there be more.

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