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Shining a Light on Democracy

Sunshine Week—the week-long, nationwide tribute to transparency and open government laws—is starting off on a great note this year since the “For the People Act” passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday by a vote of 234 – 193. Given the bill number “H.R. 1” to show the House’s top priority of cleaning up corruption and strengthening our voting system, the bill would drastically improve citizens’ experience at the ballot box while reducing corporate influence on democracy. What some people might not know, though, is that H.R. 1 was also about improving transparency and letting the “disinfectant” of sunshine in on the workings of government.

To kick-off Sunshine Week, here is an overview of several provisions in the “For the People Act” passed by the House that would greatly increase transparency if signed into law:

Disclosure of Presidential and Vice-Presidential Tax Returns

Public Citizen and our members and supporters were very active in the Tax March events that took place across the country almost two years ago demanding that Donald J. Trump disclose his tax returns to the American people. Unfortunately, he didn’t heed the call, despite all previous presidents for the past 40-plus years having voluntarily done so. U.S. House Democrats, led by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), included in the “For the People Act” a requirement that candidates for presidential and vice-presidential office, and officeholders of those positions, disclose their individual tax returns.

However, because of President Trump’s vast personal business interests, it was clear that simply getting individual tax returns for presidents, vice-presidents and candidates for those offices wouldn’t give a full enough picture of possible conflicts of interest. Through the work of Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) who offered a Manager’s Amendment as the bill was being voted on, championed by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, (D-Wash.) co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the original language of the legislation was expanded to include business tax returns as well.

As a side note, since it’s definitely not likely that President Trump would sign H.R. 1, to get these presidential and vice-presidential tax returns, in the short term because of the urgent need, it’s up to the House Ways & Means Committee to request them, something it is expected to do shortly. Though reportedly the request will only first focus on individual tax returns, which would greatly hamper the ability to document where the president personally gains for the laws he is signing—and promoting. That certainly was the case with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the 2017 tax law that, among other giveaways to the rich, gave a 20 percent tax deduction to “pass-through” businesses like LLCs, the structure most of his businesses happen to be set up as. Oh, by the way, real estate LLCs got extra special treatment under the deduction. These instances of self-dealing go to show now’s the time to pull back the curtain on those tax returns and let some sunshine in!

Political Spending Disclosure

Corporations are not required at present to disclose how much they spend influencing elections, or which candidates they supported with shareholder funds. This poses many problems for investors, who need to have a full picture of the risks facing companies, including risks to reputation from supporting candidates or ideas that turns away their customers. Moreover, when it comes to government contractors, this lack of transparency creates a specific concern that those corporations could be using contributions to certain entities that support certain lawmakers in order to grease the wheels to getting awarded contracts. Thus, the fact that H.R. 1 requires companies or other entities to disclose details of their political spending when it exceeds $10,000 will provide some needed sunshine on government contractors—along with all other politically-active companies.

H.R. 1 would largely bring an end to secret campaign spending, “dark money,” by requiring that outside groups – including nonprofit organizations that attempt to hide the sources of their funds behind the tax code – reveal all their significant funders that help pay for electioneering activity. The top funders of a campaign ad would also be identified in the ad itself. And those who pay for campaign ads on the Internet – a favorite dark money form of advertising by foreign sources – would also be disclosed to the public.

And, until this bill makes into law, Public Citizen will remain a leader in the work to use other means to put in place political spending disclosure—through supporting shareholder resolutions, advocating for the petition for rulemaking to the Securities and Exchange Commission that received a record-number of comments in support, among other campaigns. But, it definitely was a huge step forward for transparency to have this provision be passed by the House as part of H.R. 1.

Other Transparency Measures

Another component of the “For the People Act” legislation would require full disclosure and no personal use of funds that have been raised for a presidential inauguration. It’s critical to have more information about what parties are seeking to influence the president from the very start of her or his presidency by funding lavish inaugural festivities. This commonsense ideas is compounded by the fact that President Donald Trump is currently under investigation for some mysteriously unexplained $50 million in expenditures by his inaugural committee.

Yet another transparency provision in H.R. 1 requires a public portal for posting of Congressionally-mandated reports so that the public will also have access to one form of the research the government is using for its decision-making. Right now thousands of reports are being shielded from the public’s eye, so this is a very positive move toward making more government-held information available.

H.R. 1 is an expansive piece of legislation that has many requirements that would add additional transparency to our democratic system: It would provide paper back-up ballots for elections to better shine the light on election outcomes, it would require clear disclosures on online political ads, and other reforms to provide more information to the public and shed more light on the state of our democracy.

As Public Citizen and our allies celebrate Sunshine Week this week, we urge the public to support shining a light on secret campaign contributions, exposing presidential conflicts of interest, and revealing other information that is being kept from voters. Please call your U.S. senators and ask for them to become original co-sponsors of the “For the People Act.” Democracy cannot thrive in the shadows.