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Even as political spending explodes, disclosure remains hazy

Politicians in Mississippi have used campaign money to pay for such things as a BMW, an RV and $800 cowboy boots.

In Wisconsin, a railroad executive was caught violating contribution limits after an ex-girlfriend he met on a “sugar daddy” dating website reported him for illegally funneling cash to Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign. Key to the investigation, election officials say, was a requirement that donors disclose their employers – but Republican lawmakers have since wiped out the rule.

Meanwhile, “dark money” spending by outside groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors is expected to explode during this presidential election year. States can take action to stem the tide at the local level, but few have. Congress could require more disclosure about who is financing campaigns, but it has made no move to do so.

Disclosure may be the public’s best and often only remaining way of knowing who is supporting political candidates in the wake of recent court decisions.

“Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed,” the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote in an opinion in favor of disclosing petition signatures.

The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has ruled in favor of public disclosure of campaign contributions, even in its earth-moving Citizens United decision. The 2010 ruling found that political spending is protected under the First Amendment, and said that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money on political activities.

It effectively wiped out key campaign finance regulations that had been in effect for decades. But it also upheld disclosure requirements.

That and other Supreme Court decisions have resulted in unprecedented amounts of money pouring into elections. Because Congress has not acted to require further disclosure, the old limits are gone and new rules have not been passed to take their place, leaving citizens more in the dark than ever about whether elected officials are working for them or for special interests behind their campaigns.

Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, said that despite the highest court’s support for disclosure of campaign donors, the Federal Election Commission and Congress remain frozen when it comes to requiring greater transparency about who is funding political groups.

“Political operators often look for ways to shield their donors,” Hasen said. “The laws have to be constantly updated.”

Congress could quickly require more disclosure, “if there was the political will to do so,” said Hasen, author of the book “Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections.”

Groups that advocate for more transparency say the federal stalemate has driven reform efforts to the local level in some states, where they see greater opportunity to push for change.

Targeting states “seems like the only outlet for making change at this level,” said David Donnelly, CEO of Every Voice, an organization working to advance state ballot initiatives that would require more disclosure about money in politics.

Donnelly argues state-level efforts, if successful, could restore the faith of voters who perceive an uninhibited flow of money into politics. The changes also could generate interest that would “build the political power, around the country, to eventually press Congress” to require some reporting of donors in national elections, he says.