1st Amendment News

Candidates disclose tax returns because media demand them. Why not use same strategy for campaign contributions?

BY PETER SCHEER–Everybody has a theory about why presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in the face of mounting criticism even within his own party, refuses to make public more of his tax returns.

My two cents: His returns for the years 2000-2005, before Romney had settled on a decision to seek the presidency, will show that he (and his wife) made generous charitable contributions to liberal causes that, while only slightly to the left of Republicans in Massachusetts, are anathema to the national GOP.

I’m thinking of organizations such as NARAL, the pro-choice group, or mainstream environmental organizations that are generally aligned with Democrats on climate change and related issues. The contributions would have been given anonymously (with the donor’s identity likely hidden even from the recipient charities), which would explain why you haven’t already heard about this apostasy.

But this is just a theory. We won’t know what Romney is wishing he didn’t have to divulge until – inevitably, inescapably, ineluctably – he is compelled by the press to divulge it. For it is a given of contemporary politics that one cannot be elected president (or vice president) without laying open one’s tax returns – and much more about personal finances besides – for scrutiny by journalists and voters.

The shortest path to disclosure of political contributions is not through Congress or courts, but for the press to demand the info from Romney and Obama, creating a new political norm based on voters’ expectations. The precedent is the existing political norm requiring release of candidates’ tax returns–a norm that Romney can’t resist much longer.

This full-frontal transparency has nothing to do with the law – which, especially in the area of taxes, is highly protective of confidentiality. It has everything to do with citizens’ expectations, created by a demanding press, for disclosure. Journalists’ unremitting demands over the years, not legal requirements, have established the political norm, now a rite of electoral passage, of disclosing candidates’ tax returns.

This norm of disclosure, however, is conspicuously absent in the area of campaign contributions. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has given its unequivocal blessing to strong disclosure requirements, secrecy remains the norm. Thanks to congressional paralysis, deep-pocketed patrons of presidential candidates have multiple legal options for delaying, limiting and completely blocking disclosure about their financial support.

The press have been bystanders to this saga too long. If Congress won’t mandate disclosure by contributors, reporters can and should demand disclosure directly from the candidates themselves.

Specifically: the names of the 25 biggest contributors to each candidate and the amounts of their contributions (including contributions to candidates’ supposedly independent super PACs and nonprofit social welfare organizations).

This is information that the candidates’ campaign aides already know to the dollar, updated hourly. They will be hard-pressed to explain why the public should not also have this information.

Just as the press established a political norm of disclosure for candidates’ tax returns, so the press can create a new political norm for full and timely disclosure of candidates’ financial supporters.

Forget about Congress. Forget about the Federal Election Commission. Meaningful disclosure will come when the press, through persistent questioning, has created fear within the campaigns that voters expect it and will punish a candidate who holds back.

There’s still time to create this political norm before the November elections.

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Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. This article does not necessarily reflect the view of the FAC board of directors. This column also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and the HuffingtonPost.

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