Sunlight Foundation: Transparency in the State of the Union

Tonight’s State of the Union Address raised even less transparency issues than we expected. (See the text at the end of this post.)

President Obama called for a ban on insider trading in Congress, and proposes to ban lobbyists from bundling contributions, and to ban bundlers from lobbying.

The insider trading ban is a proposal Sunlight has supported, in the form of the STOCK Act, despite some initial misgivings. Congress should create clarity about self-dealing and insider trading, and the President is right to call on Congress to address this issue.

When Obama raised the issue of money in politics in his speech, though, he raises the “corrosive influence of money in politics.” As wrong as insider trading may be, money in politics isn’t about self-dealing. Obama is closer to hitting the mark in raising the issue of bundlers, but unfortunately raises a proposal that’s unlikely to get discussed beyond tomorrow. A ban on lobbying or contributing to campaigns is unlikely to pass Congress, and unlikely to pass muster with the courts. Even if it did, it would do little to mitigate the “corrosive influence of money in politics”, since bundlers are often just the bag men operating at others’ behest. If you’re not getting the Chris Dodds of the world, your lobbying reform plan is probably aiming a little too low.

It’s not clear why Obama is suddenly more interested in bundlers than say, lobbying disclosure (last year’s lobbying SOTU provision), although it’s possible that Obama is raising it because it will become a campaign issue, as Republican candidates have yet to release information about bundlers supporting them, as Obama has.

But this is still disappointing, since it again shows Obama relying on a flawed statutory definition of lobbyist in order to appear opposed to special interests, without actually having to do much.

Worse, though, than the lackluster vision for lobbying reform, is what’s entirely missing from the State of the Union: any mention of the flood of dark money flowing into our elections. As I noted earlier today, Obama spent most of 2010 railing against the Citizens United decision — warning us of the dangers of unlimited and secret contributions, and pushing for a legislative fix.

Since Republicans have blocked that effort, and former White House staffers started a super PAC to help Obama’s re-election bid, Obama has almost completely ignored the issue. It’s apparently too politically awkward to address when he’s the beneficiary of all that dark money he spent 2010 warning us about.

It’s good to have a President willing to raise transparency and money in politics in the State of the Union. But when insider trading and an ill-fated lunge at bundlers are all the vision he has to offer, we have to wonder whether Obama sees his old transparency platform as a liability, rather than a vision to be perfected and implemented.

Speech Excerpt:

Some of this has to do with the corrosive influence of money in politics. So together, let’s take some steps to fix that. Send me a bill that bans insider trading by Members of Congress, and I will sign it tomorrow. Let’s limit any elected official from owning stocks in industries they impact. Let’s make sure people who bundle campaign contributions for Congress can’t lobby Congress, and vice versa – an idea that has bipartisan support, at least outside of Washington.

Some of what’s broken has to do with the way Congress does its business these days. A simple majority is no longer enough to get anything – even routine business – passed through the Senate. Neither party has been blameless in these tactics. Now both parties should put an end to it. For starters, I ask the Senate to pass a rule that all judicial and public service nominations receive a simple up or down vote within 90 days.

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