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Opinion

Op-Ed: How to end secret money without passing a law

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Campaign Finance

April 30. 2013, marked the day that the term of the last Federal Elections Commission member expired. Now, out of six seats on the FEC, one is vacant and every remaining commissioner is serving an expired term.

And we're not talking about weeks or months: FEC Chairman Ellen Weintraub's term, for example, expired in April 2007.

What is holding things up? President Obama could, if he wished, appoint new commissioners to all six FEC seats. (No more than three commissioners can be from one party, and appointments are subject to Senate confirmation.)

Obama could choose commissioners who actually want to enforce the law, clearing a path to progress, at last, on regulations to end secret money. Fixing the FEC is the "low-hanging fruit" of the money and politics movement.

Neither Citizens United nor other Supreme Court decisions require campaign contributions to be kept secret. Rather, these court decisions interact with existing law to create giant loopholes that led to the flood of dark money in recent elections.

Several times, even with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Congress failed to pass the Disclose Act, which would have ended the secrecy of campaign contributions. Now, with Republicans controlling the House, there is no chance for disclosure legislation passing in Congress.

But these loopholes aren't immutable. The FEC also has the power to compel disclosure of all contributions. This wouldn't make the unlimited spending go away, but it would make this spending public and transparent, an essential step forward.

In 2007, Obama said, "as president, I will appoint nominees to the commission who are committed to enforcing our nation's election laws." Why hasn't he done so?

The absence of organized political pressure has allowed Obama to serve four years as president without appointing a single new commissioner. (One nomination, made in 2009, was later withdrawn.)

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a handful of other groups have spotlighted the problem, but this is just the beginning. What is desperately needed is a well-resourced, organized campaign with a broad coalition of groups involved.

A two-year national campaign, requiring only a fraction of the resources of running a campaign to attempt to pass a national law or constitutional amendment, would be enough to create the public pressure necessary to drive Obama to appoint these commissioners.

Obama has already said he wants to do this. Are we going to wait for a new president to appoint new commissioners? Or are we going to put the pressure on now, when we have a president who is already favorably inclined, a president who understands the issue -- a president who for eight years served on the board of directors of the Joyce Foundation, with its longtime support of money and politics reform?

In 40 years, there has never been more public disgust with the corrupting influence of money on politics. Ending secret money would be a big national win. Will we seize this rare opportunity, or let it pass?

Daniel G. Newman is co-founder and president of MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization that tracks the influence of money on politics.

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