Inquirer Editorial: An election to remember

Posted: November 07, 2012

The day after President Obama's reelection is a good time to reflect on how the campaign was affected by a tragically flawed Supreme Court decision and others that undermined efforts to add some common sense to political spending.

This is the day after more than $6 billion was spent on election campaigns, with much of it coming from barely restrained and often secretive groups. Most of that money went to TV advertising that was generally negative and further served to erode the public's confidence not only in the candidates put before it, but also in an electoral system that is supposed to be the model for the rest of the world.

The end of the long election season isn't a sad day solely for the losing candidates. It's a sad day for America, when you consider the obscene gobs of money spent by corrupting influences due to a lack of restraints.

Under the current system, individuals, businesses, and practically any other group or organization with enough cash can bully its way through an election and then use the tax code to hide like cowards from angry stockholders, customers, or members of their organization who may not approve of their political tactics.

There is plenty of blame to go around for all the money that was deceptively spent to get voters to support certain candidates and interests, starting with the U.S. Supreme Court. Its 2010 Citizens United decision said it was OK for businesses and other groups to pour millions into the campaigns of candidates who would support their interests.

The Supreme Court should have contemplated the need for better disclosure of donors and made provisions for that in its ruling. Even worse, Congress, mired in partisanship, couldn't muster the votes to require more disclosure. A stripped-down disclosure bill limped into Congress this summer, but its sponsors knew there was little hope of its passage for the 2012 races.

More fault for the excessive spending on wave after wave of negative political ads lies with the Internal Revenue Service, whose archaic rules allow "social welfare" organizations to hide donors. The IRS never properly investigated which groups were truly "social welfare" organizations and which ones were simply partisan laundromats.

Also fault President Obama, who failed to replace five of the Federal Elections Commission's six members whose official terms have expired. The commission of holdovers was too deadlocked to referee spending in this cycle.

With the election over, it's time to fix the system, starting with disclosure. Super PACs, which are required to disclose donors, don't do so often enough. "Social welfare" groups don't disclose donors at all. That must change.

In the Internet age of instant information, any individual or group spending money on an election should disclose its donors and spending immediately. Correspondingly, there should be federal matching funds for congressional candidates who agree to accept only small donations - the kind real people can make.

And it's time to consider whether a constitutional amendment placing some limits on campaign spending would be an undue infringement on free-speech rights. Reining in the slogan peddlers who have only their self-interest in mind when they shell out big cash to out-shout opposing candidates is the best way to ensure the vigor of democracy.

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