This editorial appears in Friday’s print edition.
Mix unlimited campaign donations with the very weakest pinch of disclosure. Throw into an overheated primary season and what happens?
One need only look at all the attack ads in Iowa and New Hampshire paid for by the so-called super PACs supporting Republican candidates – groups with such names as Restore Our Future (Mitt Romney), Winning Our Future (Newt Gingrich) and the Revolution PAC (Ron Paul). Waiting in the wings: The already well-larded Priorities USA Action super PAC supporting President Barack Obama’s re-election and the prospect of super PACs trying to influence congressional races as well.
The only restriction on these PACs is that they don’t coordinate their activities with the parties or the candidates they support. But that’s a joke, and everyone knows it. Because most of the PACs are headed up by either former colleagues or family members of the candidates, one would have to be naive to think that the PACs are completely independent of the candidates’ campaigns.
Thanks to two 2012 rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, these PACs can collect enormous sums from wealthy donors, corporations and labor unions. But due to a loophole in federal law, those contributors can remain secret for a long time.
For instance, some of the super PACs that have been bankrolling attack ads don’t have to disclose their donors until Jan. 31 – after the Iowa caucuses and the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina and on the same day Florida voters go to the polls in that state’s primary.
That has to change, and citizens should pressure their members of Congress to close the loophole. Voters must know who is trying to influence their vote by throwing millions of dollars at candidates. More importantly, they must be able to scrutinize the donors for what they might expect as a quid pro quo should their candidate be elected.
If Wall Street types are backing a candidate, for instance, won’t they expect less rigorous oversight of their activities? If a candidate is backed by labor unions, that sends another message voters might want to consider. But they can’t if that information isn’t made available in a timely fashion – well before an election, not weeks afterward.
The Supreme Court opened a floodgate of campaign finance shenanigans with its 2010 ruling that overturned sensible requirements in the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The result has been to give even more clout to those with the deepest pockets.
Tougher disclosure laws probably won’t tone down the rhetoric much, but at least the public will be better informed about who’s doing all the yelling.