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A Change. Not an End.

BY Chris Nolan | Sunday, March 13 2005

A few days ago, I got smacked around by the folks at Captains Quarters over a column I wrote in eWeek about blogging and the FEC.

The story had a dumb headline that didn't really get at the point I was trying to make so Captain Ed made fun of me then pointed out that my eWeek column would exempt me from the commission's rules. Maybe. But maybe not. In any case, I'm not standing behind anyone in claiming free speech rights on a par with Big Media for anyone and everyone working on-line. Anyone who tries it can meet my lawyer. And he makes me look like a nice, refined quiet sort.

Where I differ from the folks at CQ is important, however. And it's one that's going to get easily lost in the calls – particularly on the right – for the FEC to be shut down. Glenn Reynolds has raised his powerful voice in support of this idea. But I think he's wrong for a few reasons.

One, readers – all of our readers, regardless of their political orientation – need to know when they're reading folks who are supported by candidates or campaigns. That's why advertising is marked the way it is and set off in a space apart from our editorial work. That's why campaigns have disclosure laws and it's why we should all be in favor of their being made as clear for the on-line world as they are for everyone else. (Insert dismissive, "clear as mud" joke here from your favor right wing blogger). At the same time, voters should know how politicians are being influenced. That's one thing the FEC does and does well and there's not reason for anyone in public office to stop disclosing their funding sources. That's something worth remembering as we move forward.

Having worked in Washington for a number of years – and relied on the data housed at the FEC for a lot of good stories – I think the commission ought to keep doing what it's doing. I'd offer one big change, however. I'd make the FEC require candidates to file weekly – if not daily – accounting of their fundraising and expenditures via the web. That way, we could all see what's going on as it happens, not weeks, months or years later.

Such disclosure – which become utter transparency at that speed – does away with much of what bother Reynolds et al. It means a change in the law – and doing away with most of the rule recently enacted by the much ballyhooed Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act – but it would be step in the right directionl.

This argument has always been dismissed – unfairly, I think – by campaign reform advocates. When I called and asked PDF contributor Rick Hasen about it, he said that disclosure wouldn't prevent corruption and it wouldn't level the playing field between rival campaigns, or rival parties.

He's right. In the pre-Internet political age, instant reporting meant very little. It wasn't technically feasible. The results of most campaigns' disclosure would, for the most part, allow candidates and campaigns to hide in plain site. So few reporters use FEC records – although they're a popular vein for oppo researchers to mine -- that disclosure as its current done and reviewed has no punch.

But in an age when Josh Micah Marshall can point his readers at their local Congress to reverse a change in House rules and – these days – shore up the Democrat's fight to save Social Security, when Reynolds and others can urge bloggers to criticize the recently enacted Bankruptcy legislation and lobby Congress on the FEC, disclosure, it seems, becomes a very powerful tool. There are more people – Grassroots Journalist, Citizen Journalists, stand alone journalist – watching, reporting and commentating; immediate disclosure gives them an important and powerful tool. The FEC doesn't – and shouldn't – go out of business. But it should change – soon -- how it does business.

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