What if your cell phone buzzed every time someone gave your congressman a ton of money?


Flickr user Kevin Dooley

Four years ago, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy made a quaint assessment about the power of technology to counter any nefarious effects from massive campaign contributions in politics. From his majority opinion in the landmark Citizens United case:

With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

The Internet! In theory, it might enable us to keep tabs on political spending with the same ease that it allows us to track our banks accounts or book concert tickets.

"It would be nice if that were true," says Lisa Rosenberg, the lobbyist for the Sunlight Foundation, a D.C.-based group that advocates for government transparency. "But unfortunately, even though the technology is available to make it true, the laws are not."

Here is an intriguing idea for one that would: Sunlight is pushing a bill, introduced earlier this spring in the Senate by Angus King (I-Maine) and in the House by Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.), that would get us much closer to real-time disclosure of political contributions. In place of quarterly reports, it would require public disclosure of hard-money contributions within 48 hours of the moment when candidates, committees or political parties receive donations of a $1,000 or more.

This is a potentially powerful idea for at least two reasons. For one, timeliness makes this information even more valuable, because timing itself is information.

"Certainly it helps connect the dots on public policy," Rosenberg says, "if these large contributions are coming in right before a hearing, and you can see that an industry representative has an interest in that hearing, whether it's a tax bill, or an immigration bill, whatever it is."

Current law requires 48-hour disclosure of large contributions within the last 20 days before an election (although right now, super PACS get a reprieve from this pesky requirement in the final 48 hours). The Real Time Transparency Act would extend that window throughout the year. Which leads us to the second reason why this idea could be powerful: Require constant disclosure like this, at all times, and you make possible the kind of digital tools Kennedy seemed to vaguely imagine.

You'd make this possible: A smartphone app that pings you every time someone sends a big chunk of money to your congressman.

Sunlight has something like this in mind -- push notifications for campaign contributions. And, no doubt, enterprising political geeks would build such a thing, if only the data were available. Rosenberg doubts that the threat of live updates for anyone who wants to sign up for them would deter donors from shelling out.

But that's not the point. The point, post-Citizens United, post-McCutcheon, is to at least give the public the power to keep up with the money we've given people the right to give.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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