Tell the public who's buying ads

Posted: July 18, 2012

Opponents of a compromise campaign-finance disclosure bill are whining about the legislation, which faces a series of procedural votes this week. Making special interests reveal where they're getting their money would have a "chilling effect" on free speech, the bill's foes say.

This hollow argument comes from individuals and organizations with millions to burn on political advertising in the upcoming federal elections.

It's likely that what they really fear is the response of angry investors and customers who don't want them using corporate funds to take swipes at candidates. Keeping investors, clients, and consumers in the dark allows the corporate executives who control their firms' political spending to throw money at whomever they please, without fear of oversight.

At the very least, the sources of corporate political largesse should be disclosed. So far, only the super PACs have disclosure requirements — and they're inadequate. Super PACs have spent $140 million, but the biggest money is expected to be funneled through shadow groups organized under the tax code as "educational" organizations, which exempts them from disclosing their donors.

Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that corporations may spend whatever they want to sway voters (and reiterated that opinion earlier this year), the best hope of getting at least a glimpse of where the money being spent to influence voters is coming from has been through a bill calling for frequent disclosure.

Sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), the bill requires groups that spend $10,000 or more on campaign ads or get-out-the-vote operations to disclose their donors within 24 hours of an expenditure. There is also a provision that would expose money laundering among shadow groups and other types of political committees, including super PACs.

The shadow groups can keep nonpolitical donations secret as long as they set up a separate bank account for them.

Disclosure reports required in Whitehouse's bill would indicate the election a PAC or other group wants to impact with its spending and name the candidate the group is boosting or trashing.

The bill is a weak cousin of earlier legislation that would have asked for more detailed information. But that legislation died in the Senate in 2010.

Even if it passes, the Whitehouse bill won't be applicable to the current election. Even more regrettable, Congress is not otherwise engaged in any serious discussion of limiting political contributions from companies, unions, and shadow groups.

Ironically, the broadcast industry, which profits the most from political advertising, is fighting disclosure. It opposes a new Federal Communication Commission rule requiring network affiliates in the 50 top markets (including Philadelphia) to post on an Internet site who bought political ads and what they paid.

Media companies that supposedly aspire to gain the public's trust through their journalism shouldn't be trying to keep voters from knowing who is paying for ads aimed at influencing their votes and public policy. The warm glow of transparency is essential to a healthy democracy.

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