I had never heard of "America's Most Popular Campaign Donor Search Engine" until a few years ago, when a critic told me he "knew" I was a GOP sycophant because he'd done research on me at Newsmeat.com. I quickly took a look.
There I was, on a site that claims to maintain a record of "individual donations of $200 or more since 1978." Over the span of more than 20 years, the site currently reports, I've given $22,850 to candidates for federal office -- 45 percent of it to Republicans, 52 percent to Democrats and 3 percent to "special interests" (a 527 group I created). Arlen Specter's recent shift to the Democrats adjusted my allotment accordingly. Apparently, I have sided with 10 winners, and 10 losers.
That activity earned me a "power rank" of 1,062. The No. 1 position is held by lobbyist Jack Valenti, who died in 2007. Dream-
Works co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher and Miami Heat owner Micky Arison are ranked immediately behind him.
While it was a bit unsettling to see my name attached to financial information on an easily accessible Web site, this public disclosure provides precisely the answer to most debates about financing elections.
I have long believed that all Americans have an unfettered right to exercise freedom of speech by making political donations to whomever they choose. The only requirement should be that they be fully and immediately disclosed online.
Of course, my view is not the law of the land. In a 1976 case, Buckley v. Valeo, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld limits on campaign contributions while striking down restrictions on how much a campaign itself could spend -- or how much a candidate could personally donate to his or her own campaign.
In practice, that means that wealthy people can spend whatever they want to get themselves elected, but an equally wealthy person cannot spend what they want in direct contributions to an opponent.
Which is why the court's decision last week in another high-profile case, Citizens United v. FEC, is a major step in the right direction.
The immediate effect of the 5-4 decision is to allow corporations and unions to tap general treasury funds to advocate for or against a particular candidate. That advocacy can now run right up to Election Day. (Organizations still cannot donate directly to a candidate for federal office.) The ruling is a movement away from a patchwork of restrictions on freedom of speech and toward the kind of unrestricted contribution rules I believe are necessary.
Many have reacted with disdain. The reality, however, is that the court's ruling does more to even the First Amendment playing field than it does to throw it out of whack. As Ted Olson, conservative lawyer and counsel to Citizens United, told the Wall Street Journal: "The vast majority of corporations are either nonprofit advocacy groups -- like Citizens United -- or small businesses." And now, he continued, individuals with limited resources can "band together to counterbalance the political speech of the superrich." Indeed. And upping the ante by getting rid of any limit on any election-related expenditure -- individual or otherwise -- would have the practical effect of eliminating the need for regulating corporate or union donations at all.
I've long likened campaign finance to the IRS tax code. There will always be loopholes -- as well as somebody willing and creative enough to take advantage of them. So why not ditch the limits and force campaigns to fully and immediately disclose who's giving them money? How can we say that a Michael Bloomberg, Jon Corzine or Ross Perot can spend whatever he wishes on his own behalf, but a similarly wealthy individual who wishes for any of them to lose an election is limited in what he contributes to their opponent? Such an atmosphere begets groups like Moveon.org and Swift Boat Veterans For Truth. And for all the finance-related hand-wringing, little was ever done to curb nonmonetary contributions, which are just as likely as cold hard cash to be curried into a political favor later.
A free-market inspired, no-holds-barred approach is needed.
Let's forgo all the consternation associated with trying to cherry-pick whose free speech is acceptable on the campaign trail. Better to focus on immediate and complete disclosure, especially considering the technology that's available to help us. In the Internet age in which we live -- where anybody with a computer or a cell phone can find out anything they want -- it should be easy to make campaign donations immediately available.
That way, if you don't like how candidates are funded, vote against them. Skeptical of the donors a campaign has lined up? Find a more acceptable coalition. Suspect a particular contribution was made with expectations of favoritism? Pull another lever.
By opening up the electoral process to corporations and unions, the Supreme Court went a long way toward closing the loopholes and repairing the patchwork system that had limped along for decades.
Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.McCLATCHY-TRIBUNE