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A Step Toward Campaign Transparency

By       Message Bill Moyers     Permalink
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Reprinted from Consortium News

President Barack Obama walks with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on the South Drive of the White House, Jan. 25, 2016.
President Barack Obama walks with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on the South Drive of the White House, Jan. 25, 2016.
(Image by (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza))
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Barack Obama once confessed to politics' original sin but has yet to atone for it. He now has an opportunity to do so. I speak of his promiscuous relationship with money in politics. During his 2008 race for the White House, Obama opted out of the public funding system for presidential campaigns -- the first candidate of a major party to do so since the system was created in 1976, after the Watergate scandals.

His defection chilled hopes that public funding might enable everyday citizens to check the power of the super rich and their super PACs, countering the influence of "dark money" -- contributions that cannot be traced to their donors.

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A friend of mine, a prominent conservative Republican who champions campaign finance reform (yes, there are some and we get along marvelously!) recently told me he believes Obama's decision was a significant blow to the cause for reform.

Six years ago, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court tried to finish it off when they ruled for Big Money -- unlimited amounts of it -- in their Citizens United decision.

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In his first State of the Union in 2010, President Obama denounced Citizens United, saying that it would reverse a century of law and open "the floodgates for special interests." He was just as blunt last year when he declared flatly that Citizens United was "wrong" and had caused "real harm to our democracy." Right on all counts.

Public-interest advocates Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen and Stephen Spaulding of Common Cause recently reminded us that since Citizens United "special interests have spent over $500 million from secret, undisclosed sources."

Think of it as poison poured into the mainstream of democracy, just as toxic as the lead released in Flint, Michigan's drinking water.

Americans of every stripe know money corrodes our politics. In a poll last year, The New York Times and CBS found that 85 percent of us think the system for funding political campaigns should be fundamentally changed or completely rebuilt.

President Obama knows it, too. Despite his own apostasy, he has spoken eloquently over the years against the present system. Unfortunately, he has done nothing about it. He's gone AWOL in our biggest battle for democracy.

Which brings us back to his confession. During that first campaign for president, the Boston Globe reported that "In Obama's eight years in the Illinois Senate, from 1996 to 2004, almost two-thirds of the money he raised for his campaigns -- $296,000 of $461,000 -- came from PACs, corporate contributions, or unions " and many other corporate interests..."

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Confronted with this by Tim Russert on Meet the Press, Obama replied: "I have said repeatedly that money is the original sin in politics and I am not sinless."

Far from sinless, he has in fact been a serial sinner. From repeated campaigns for the state legislature, through his one campaign for the US Senate, to his last campaign for president in 2012, money from organized interests poured into his coffers. The finance industry, communications industry, the health industry -- they all had a piece of him, sometimes a very big piece.

In his defense, Obama said he could not "unilaterally disarm." So like the young Augustine of Hippo, who prayed, "Lord, grant me chastity ... but not yet," Barack Obama was saying that when the time arrived, he would sin no more.

Well, Mr. President, it's time. You have no more campaigns to wage. With a little less than 12 months left in the White House, you have the opportunity to atone for exploiting a system that you have deplored in words if not deeds. You can restart the engine of reform and even demonstrate that Citizens United can be tamed.

Just take out your pen and sign an executive order compelling federal contractors to disclose their political spending. In one stroke you can put an end to a blatant practice of political bribery that would be one small step for you and one giant leap for democracy.

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Bill Moyers is President of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy.


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