Tester can lead on transparency


Is Montana losing a senator, or is the nation gaining a Montanan?

The next two years will tell. Last week U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., accepted the post of chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, meaning that one of his primary duties between now and November 2016 will be helping Democrats get elected to the U.S. Senate.

What this means for his constituents back in Montana will depend on how he uses this role. He can either help truly “make Washington look more like Montana,” as his campaign once promised – or he can let Montana simmer on the back burner as he cooks up campaign gravy for Democratic Senate hopefuls in other states.

This week, Tester sent a signal about which way he’s leaning with the introduction of a new bill to bring more transparency to certain so-called “dark money” groups. Called the Sunlight for Unaccountable Non-profits Act, the bill would make Schedule B forms – which list the names of donors to political organizations claiming non-profit status – available to the public. It would also require the IRS to make nonprofit 990 forms – which are already public information – more accessible by making them available on a searchable website.

As Tester’s office pointed out, “spending by groups that do not disclose all of their donors jumped from $161 million to at least $219 million” in the most recent elections – the most expensive mid-term elections in this nation’s history.

“We need to get big money out of elections, but until we do, the American people deserve to know who is paying for the ads on their TVs,” Tester said in the news release. When a candidate runs an ad, folks know who donated to their campaigns. Voters deserve to know who is behind these outside groups, too. Transparency is not a political issue. My bill will make our elections more transparent and empower all Americans.”

Tester has made similar statements about dark money and its influence on elections before, including, recently, on the Senate floor and again at Harvard University.

But we daresay Tester could put his talk into meaningful, immediate action through his new leadership role with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. As he goes about recruiting Senate candidates and raising campaign funds for them, he ought to ensure that candidates pledge to run transparent campaigns – and that all campaign contributions are made out in the sunlight.

Of course, there are those who believe close races simply cannot be won without using dark money, and lots of it. But that’s not how we do things in Montana, and Tester’s in a prime position expand that Montana attitude to the rest of the nation.

True, he’s starting off standing in a hole, with Democrats now the minority party in the U.S. Senate. But Tester, a 58-year-old farmer from Big Sandy, has experience winning close Senate races, having done so in 2006 and again in 2012. In those races and others, Montanans have made it clear that we aren’t swayed by piles of money from unnamed sources, and we don’t like it when big campaign spenders hide behind anonymous groups. In Montana, voters value transparency.

And at the beginning of this year, GovTrack.us ranked Tester above all other U.S. senators for his support of transparency bills. Tester’s challenge now is to make his party’s 2016 Senate election campaigns the most transparent ever.